It remains to be seen whether Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will retain his position in the Old Trafford dugout by the start of next season, and there is certainly no need for Manchester United to make a binding decision over who will be their next permanent manager at this juncture, with so much of the current campaign remaining.
But the manner of the Red Devils’ 2-0 FA Cup fifth-round victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Monday night leaves Solskjaer with few boxes left unticked when assessing his aptitude for the role he currently occupies on a temporary basis.
The Norwegian’s early success following his appointment to replace Jose Mourinho as United manager in December was largely attributed to the fact he simply wasn’t Mourinho.
The atmosphere at the club had grown toxic under the former Real Madrid and Inter Milan boss, with a large percentage of the squad performing way below their potential and fallouts with key players becoming a regular occurence.
So, then, ran the line of thinking that the presence of the affable Solskjaer, a velvet touch after two and a half years of hardline man-management under Mourinho, was a simple yet effective elixir, a quick remedy which drove United on through a handful of fixtures they’d ordinarily expect to win.
United to Win & BTTS (vs Liverpool) WAS 5.25 NOW 5.75*
United are 3.05 to beat Liverpool on Sunday*
Solskjaer was doing the simple things well, making minor adjustments for major gains, moves that most fans had grown frustrated with Mourinho for not making. Marcus Rashford was restored to his preferred position as a central striker. Paul Pogba was brought in from the cold and allowed to play with freedom. And the team as a whole were encouraged to take off the handbrake and play the kind of attacking football traditionally expected of the club.
Questions remained, though, over whether Solskjaer possessed the requisite tactical acumen to be a viable long-term option for United, and to outwit such coaching masterminds as Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and the man reportedly top of United’s managerial wish list, Mauricio Pochettino.
January’s 1-0 win over Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur went some way towards satisfying Solskjaer’s doubters, with the seconded Molde boss introducing an innovative split-strikers plan and utilising Jesse Lingard in a hybrid No.10/false 9 role.
But the fact Spurs were dominant for long period and failed to score only through their own sub-par finishing and an incredible 11-save display from David de Gea left many with the impression United had ridden their luck, that another day would have brought a different result.
An FA Cup fourth-round victory away at Arsenal was further evidence of Solskjaer’s tactical nous, but the prospect of taking on Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, where United tend to struggle, without the injured Lingard and Anthony Martial was to provide the sternest test yet of the caretaker manager’s credentials.
The end result – not just the 2-0 win, but the way United executed their plan to perfection – can leave no doubt over Solskjaer’s ability to devise a tactical plan to overcome elite opposition and ensure his players implement it to the letter.
In terms of how United set up against the Blues, it was a similar system to the one they used against Spurs. Romelu Lukaku and Rashford started as central strikers but would often pull wide to create space for runners from midfield.
United are 2.00 to finish in the Premier League’s top four this season*
It was nominally a 4-3-1-2 formation, but in the No.10 position, with Lingard’s energy, speed and dynamism not an option, Solskjaer went with former Chelsea playmaker Juan Mata, a polar opposite of Lingard in terms of skillset.
It was a brave choice and one that left Alexis Sanchez on the bench, but Solskjaer’s decision would be vindicated. What Mata lacks in athleticism and speed he makes up for with positional intelligence, technique and reliability.
Mata created only one chance and didn’t shoot for goal at all, but he was essential in connecting the lines of United’s midfield and attack, completing 90.3 per cent of his passes, and his movement and link play allowed Ander Herrera and Pogba, the game’s goal-scorers, to flood forward to great effect.
With his sublime assist for the first goal and his determined, driven header for the second, Pogba was named man of the match. But Herrera’s contribution was arguably greater. Only one United player – full-back Ashley Young – saw more of the ball than the Basque midfielder and, in his box-to-box role, he was crucial to United’s defensive effort.
United saw only a 33 per cent share of possession, but the way Herrera – who made three interceptions and a game-leading five tackles – and Nemanja Matic shielded the back four, and how cohesive and well-drilled the defence was on the night, meant Chelsea barely threatened, landing just two shots on target to United’s five.
Tactically, it was the perfect away performance, and it demonstrated that Solskjaer is much more than a mere motivator.
*Odds subject to change
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by Tom Bodell