For Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, with the exception of a call coming from Ed Woodward to tell him he has got the job full-time, life at Manchester United could not better. Four wins, 14 goals scored, three conceded and Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford purring in attack.
Yes, the Norwegian has not been stacked against the highest quality of opposition, and Tottenham on January 13 will be the first true indicator of the extent of his work at Old Trafford, but as the old saying goes, “you can only beat what’s in front of you”. So far, Solskjaer’s United have done so with professionalism and panache.
But it’s much more than just the results, which for a club of United’s stature should have been expected, it’s the feel-good factor and sense of joy that has returned following the dismissal of Jose Mourinho, and Solskjaer’s trust and faith in those the Portuguese seemed so willing to discard or shackle tactically.
Under Solskjaer, Pogba has four goals and three assists, Rashford three goals and one assist, and Martial a goal and an assist. Having done wonders for their confidence and production, with Reading on the horizon in the FA Cup, Solskjaer is likely to turn to two other under-performing attacking players as his next pet project.
In need of a boost
Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez had become shadows of their former selves under Mourinho.
The Lukaku of Russia 2018 who tore through defences suddenly and chronically lacked confidence and anything resembling a first touch. Likewise, Sanchez, once considered among the best forwards in England’s top flight, became irrelevant and out-of-step with his teammates.
Both will start against Jose Manuel Gomes’ Reading, giving Solskjaer ample opportunity to not only try and bring them back to their previous levels but also assess their suitability within the squad moving forward.
Romelu Lukaku to be first goalscorer against Reading, 4.0*
That all said, there has already been signs of life from the pair under United’s caretaker manager. Lukaku has two goals in just 47 minutes as a substitute, while Sanchez combined with the Belgian to set up Rashford’s goal in the 2-0 win at Newcastle on Wednesday.
Despite all the millions lavished on their squad, United had mutated into one of the most miserable attacking teams in the Premier League, irrespective of the individuals on the field. Imagine what they’d be like if Lukaku and Sanchez can follow the leads of Rashford, Martial and Pogba.
Opponents there for the taking
Reading are in serious trouble in the Championship having not won since November 3 (five draws, five defeats), they also possess the division’s joint-fourth worst defence, having conceded 41 in 26 games. With just four wins all season, they are unlikely to pose United too many problems at either end of the field.
At Old Trafford, with the stadium buzzing and a group of players rediscovering their passion and love of the game, there are serious competition for places in the dressing room. Lukaku and Sanchez may simply not get a better chance all season to show what they’re capable of.
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Such is their pedigree as well – Sanchez (63 Premier League goals in 145 games) and Lukaku (109 in 238) – for all of the excellence of Rashford and Martial it is the more experience duo who could feasibly become Solskjaer’s favoured duo.
But whereas Sanchez and Lukaku’s pedigree is well established, another two players who should be handed the chance to impress this weekend are newcomers Fred and Diogo Dalot.
In Dalot’s case, the Portuguese was signed as a long-term project and although Antonio Valencia was largely ignored by Mourinho, it was Ashley Young and, bizarrely, Matteo Darmian preferred over the teenager at right-back.
Dalot did look impressive in his sporadic performances, full of attacking zeal, potentially bringing another dimension to how United attack and, most pleasing of all, confident and at ease with his surroundings. Should he be given the nod for the FA Cup, he too could push himself to the front of Solskjaer’s thoughts moving forward.
Should he under-perform, it doesn’t matter. He is seen as the future not the present.
That isn’t true of another summer arrival in Brazilian midfielder Fred. Signed ahead of Manchester City and supposed to bring drive, energy and guile to the middle of the park, after an encouraging debut against Leicester he’s drifted from view.
Mourinho, just like with so many of the aforementioned players, seemingly had neither the trust nor the patience to develop a place for him in the team and instead returned to the tried-and-tested Nemanja Matic at the base of midfield. It’s still unclear therefore what Fred can bring to United.
Saturday’s tie may seem, in light of recent results and Reading’s struggles in the division below, a relative walk in the park for revitalised United but for Solskjaer is provides a huge opportunity to continue to build form, grow confidence among the individuals who suffered under Mourinho and find out a little more about his team.
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*odds subject to change
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by Tom Bodell