Ole's true test as Manchester United manager comes after Liverpool success
Under Jose Mourinho, United refused to allow rivals City to celebrate their inevitable 2017/18 Premier League title in the Manchester Derby. It may have been the last time Mourinho and Paul Pogba worked together toward a common goal.
After the Citizens worked a two-goal lead in the first half through Ilkay Gundogan and Vincent Kompany, Pogba took the game by the throat in the second half, scoring twice to level terms. Chris Smalling atoned for leaving Kompany alone in the first half by making the far more respected Belgian look foolish in the dying minutes, beating him to the ball to bury the winner.
Smalling haters quickly forgot that epic moment, just as they did every positive contribution the centre-half made over the years for Manchester United. I’m not here to debate whether the Roma forward deserves to be in the Eternal City [he does in more ways than one] and I’ve already bared my soul regarding the unrelenting haters who give Manchester United supporters a bad name. What matters now, in the wake of the Red Devils unexpected draw against Liverpool at Old Trafford on Sunday, is what happened next.
Eight days later, United played a listless, purposeless 90 minutes against Championship-bound West Brom, paying for their lethargy when Jay Rodriguez beat David de Gea for the game’s only goal on 73 minutes. The defeat handed Pep Guardiola’s Sky Blues the title.
That game lingers in the minds of many United fans like stomach acid after your fifth chimichanga. It’s why some drew no hope from the draw against Liverpool on the weekend. Too often in 2019/20, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s squad played down to their opposition.
Their record against Premier League teams currently holding down European places is two wins and two draws, no defeats. They’ve outscored Chelsea, Leicester City, Arsenal and Liverpool 8-2 on aggregate. Against the rest of the Premier League, they eked out two draws and suffered three defeats. Wolves, Crystal Palace, Southampton, West Ham and Newcastle dominated them 7-2 on aggregate.
Haters will tell you Ole’s squad is shite, that someone like Massimiliano Allegri must come in, spend another half-billion on premium talent and overhaul the squad to compete. On the other hand, Jurgen Klopp didn’t like the way United set up and was even more chafed at VAR leaving him in the lurch but admitted the Red Devils were better than the Merseysiders until the final 20 minutes.
Similarly, Frank Lampard readily confessed United outplayed his Blues for most of the season opener. Unai Emery showed respect for his opponents in his post-match presser as well. Only Brendan Rodgers stuck to a theme of disappointment at not snatching a result although he too acknowledged United are never an easy game.
If the teams at the top of the table speak well of the Red Devils following their encounters, there must be talent in the squad. Further, if United can earn eight of a possible 12 points against teams in the top five, that total should not represent 80% of their haul to date. They should be playing much better against lesser opponents.
It’s on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to impress that point on his players. If they can’t motivate themselves to play the more mundane matches, he must find a way to light their collective fire. The Norwegian received credit all around [save for Paul Ince] for his work in the first seventeen matches following Mourinho’s dismissal, during which the club recorded 14 wins and two draws. After finishing the season with two wins and a draw against eight defeats and beginning this one with a 3-6-3 mark after 90 minutes in all competitions, it appears the players’ spirit was less influenced by Ole’s presence than Jose’s absence.
Matches tonight and Sunday against Partizan and Norwich City must be the measuring stick for Solskjaer and United, not the matches against top sides.
Belgrade is a 1,500-mile trek but United are lucky the match is an early start. It’s the waiting after a long flight that does you in. The Serbians are joint-top in Europa League Group L with the Red Devils but Solskjaer’s squad is there on the strength of a lone goal. Partizan claim four from their two matches although they exposed themselves to three at their own end. Finding them in fifth in the Serbian Superliga is a baited trap. They’ve lost their last two to mid-table squads but still boast a goal difference of 16. In 11 domestic matches, they’ve only conceded seven times. Partizan will make United work. It’s up to the Red Devils to prove their quality.
Carrow Road represents a different danger. Despite the incongruous nil-nil result with Bournemouth, second-bottom Norwich are weak defensively. While Daniel Farke’s Canaries sang after 93 goals last season, six more than any other club, they won the Championship despite an eighth-ranked defence that shipped 57 goals in 46 matches. In nine Premier League matches, they’ve already conceded 21, joint-worst with bottom side Watford. Norwich will attack on Sunday which might be the best thing for Manchester United. Solskjaer’s crew hit Liverpool on the break to great effect this past Sunday. They should be able to find more joy in Norfolk.
The bottom line is the next two games are make or break for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, however patient the United board intends to be with him. Roy Keane claimed the players quit on Mourinho and would do the same to the Norwegian. In this week’s eminently winnable matches, Ole must prove the squad will play for him.