Confirmation that Manchester United will face Chelsea in the FA Cup fifth round, in a rerun of last year’s final, means Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has not one, but two daunting three-game runs to negotiate in the near future.
United travel to Stamford Bridge in between two huge clashes at home: the Champions League last-16 first leg with Paris Saint-Germain and the visit of Premier League leaders Liverpool to Old Trafford.
An even more fearsome trilogy lies in wait in March, with trips to PSG and Arsenal before the derby with Manchester City at home, packed into a ten-day period.
But if Solskjaer’s nascent reign as United boss has taught us anything, it’s that he has the squad to deal with such formidable challenges.
Friday’s cup win over Arsenal proved as much. Solskjaer gave David de Gea a rest and dropped Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial – two star performers under the Norwegian – to the bench.
In came Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez, two curiously peripheral figures of late. The personnel may have changed slightly but the result stayed the same. Sanchez scored a fine goal against his former club while Lukaku, deployed on the wing, notched two assists.
That Solskjaer could call upon Martial and Rashford to go on and make sure of the result is a testament to United’s strength in depth.
Since his appointment, Solskjaer has been able to rely on the ingenuity of Rashford, Martial and Paul Pogba going forward, with the trio having contributed 12 goals and seven assists between them during his time in charge.
However, the 45-year-old has still managed to keep Lukaku motivated despite the Belgian spending some time on the bench and said exactly the right thing regarding Sanchez ahead of the player’s return to a hostile Emirates.
Using astute man-management skills, Solskjaer bigged Sanchez up, backing the Chilean to shine against a backdrop of jeers and boos. It proved effective, too, as the 30-year-old netted a fine opener, his first goal since the winner against Newcastle on October 6. Sanchez’s display has thrust him into contention for his first Premier League start in almost three months against Burnley on Tuesday night. But whether or not he starts, a triumphant return to the Emirates felt like an important moment in Sanchez’s United career, giving him a platform from which he can establish himself as a consistently key member of the side.
The win at the Emirates will have also been a major boost to Lukaku’s confidence. The 25-year-old has struggled to hit top form this season after the World Cup but looked as menacing as he has done in a long time on Friday.
In a clever tactical move, Solskjaer deployed Lukaku on the right wing. Its effect was two-fold; not only did it expose Gunners’ positionally wayward left-back Sead Kolasinac, but it gave Sanchez licence to influence the game from a central position. It was no coincidence that the opening goal came after the South American made a smart run between Arsenal’s two centre-backs before rounding Petr Cech and finding the corner.
Lukaku found Sanchez with a clever, no-look reverse pass that split Arsenal’s defence and he was the architect of United’s second, too, driving down the right flank before finding Jesse Lingard in the box, the England international coolly slotting beyond Cech.
Even with Rashford and Martial on the bench, United looked a clinical, devastating attacking unit, but it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. After all, despite a dip in form, Lukaku and Sanchez remain two of English football’s most accomplished attackers.
But their re-emergence at United has really brought into sharp focus the enviable strength in depth available to Solskjaer, particularly in attack. Paul Pogba has emerged from being the symbol of a broken regime to be a driving presence in midfield, Rashford is relishing his role as the matchwinner-in-chief while Martial, Lingard, Sanchez and Lukaku have all been wearing smiles, not frowns, of late.
One of Solskjaer’s successes has been keeping things fresh, shuffling his pack in a style not too dissimilar to the man from who he draws most managerial inspiration: Sir Alex Ferguson. The legendary Scot realised better than most the importance of squad rotation, masterfully alternating four strikers – Dwight York, Andy Cole, Teddy Sheringham and Solskjaer – during United’s Treble-winning campaign.
And the student has clearly learned from the teacher, with Solskjaer keeping everyone guessing over his line-up and formation. He has found joy in using a 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2 with a diamond in midfield. He has used Rashford, Lukaku and Sanchez through the middle but also showed tactical nous in deploying Lukaku out wide in the Arsenal win.
This has given Solskjaer a deeper knowledge of his squad, a wider appreciation of not only their talents but the different roles they can fulfill, and it will help when he must approach a series of intimidating challenges over the next two months. Using Lukaku out wide may be something Solskjaer wishes to try again, particularly for the trips to Chelsea, PSG and Arsenal over the next five weeks, when United may not necessarily dominate possession and must rely on their skill on the break.
While injuries may complicate matters in the weeks ahead, Solskjaer has the benefit of picking from a squad who are content and full of confidence but his challenge now, with so many players fit and on form, is keeping everyone happy. He has passed every test so far but his ability in managing a squad will be tested when players who are performing are dropped for big games.
But these are the kinds of problems managers want. Solskjaer can’t fit Lukaku, Sanchez, Lingard, Rashford, Martial, Pogba and Juan Mata all into the same team but having such a plethora of attacking talent can help the United boss devise different game plans and maintain the brilliant form that has transformed the club’s season.
* odds subject to change
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by Tom Bodell