Paris Saint-Germain brought a setback, a reality check. Manchester United had been flying since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s appointment, racking up ten wins in eleven games, with the only blemish on that record a draw at home to Burnley.
They had, against the odds, climbed back into the Premier League’s top four. And where previously the prospect of a trip to Stamford Bridge for an FA Cup fifth-round tie would have brought groans and pessimism, there was a sense of “Bring it on!” among United fans when the draw was made, their confidence restored by a merciful return to an attacking, bold style of play and buoyed by the much-improved performances of key players.
Finally, after five and a half years of it not being the case, United as a collective were at least as strong as the sum of their individual parts.
But then PSG came to Old Trafford. Spirits were high ahead of the French champions’ visit, not least because they would be without Neymar and Edinson Cavani for the Champions League last-16 showdown.
They still had Kylian Mbappe, Marco Verratti, Angel Di Maria and Marquinhos, though, who proved more than enough to end the United caretaker manager’s unbeaten streak.
But the 2-0 defeat should not take away from the fine work Solskjaer has done to date, nor should it diminish his prospects of landing the job beyond the summer. Even with such key absences, PSG’s squad is one far more replete with world-class talent; they are runaway Ligue 1 leaders with desperate designs on cracking the Champions League; United, by contrast, are in the infancy of yet another rebuild.
It seems as though the Norwegian is one of only two men in the running for the post, with Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino the other contender.
While there is no need for United to make any decision on the matter at this time, reports suggest Solskjaer has moved from makeshift stand-in to the favourite to lead the Red Devils out from next season onward.
And not without reason. What Solskjaer lacks in a top-level track record compared to Pochettino, he has made up for in practical experience and demonstrable – albeit short-term – success in the very role he covets.
A United player for 11 years during his playing days, his legacy at the club assured thanks to his contribution to the club’s historic treble of 1999, Solskjaer understands what United fans value, and he has sought to restore and abide by those values from the moment he was appointed.
Under Jose Mourinho, not only had results slid to the point United found themselves sixth in the Premier League table, 11 points adrift of fourth-placed Chelsea, but the style of play was intolerably drab.
Traditionally, United have aspired to an attacking brand of football, with pace out wide and up front, playing direct, front-foot football. This was far from the case while Mourinho was in charge, and the same was true during the tenures of Louis van Gaal and David Moyes before him.
Solskjaer corrected this instantly. His first game at the helm, away to his former employers Cardiff City, was won 5-1. United’s Premier League goals-per-game average has risen from 1.71 for the season under Mourinho to 2.56 since the Norwegian took the reins.
Players who had underperformed, felt undervalued and were misused during Mourinho’s stewardship have been reborn, restored to roles that suit their skills and happier for being trusted to perform within them.
Marcus Rashford, after two years of being confined to the wing – or, worse, the bench – looks like a more mature version of the exciting teenager striker who burst onto the scene in 2016; Paul Pogba, United’s record signing who suffered a fractious relationship with Mourinho, is now scoring and assisting league goals at a faster rate than Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
The PSG game showed that, for all the optimism Solskjaer has fostered and the reinvigoration his presence has brought to Old Trafford, this United squad is still short of the quality and depth to contend for major honours. Mourinho was right about one thing: further investment is required.
The work he has done so far, though, has earned Solskjaer immeasurable good will among fans; to the point the Old Trafford powers that be may fear the PR ramifications of not giving him the job long-term.
Pochettino is a worthy candidate, too, an excellent manager who continues to overachieve on a limited budget with Spurs. But if Solskjaer can keep United in the top four, thus qualifying for next season’s Champions League when it appeared that ship had sailed at the point of his arrival, he will have done more than enough to deserve to keep his place.
*Odds subject to change
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by Tom Bodell