Victory over Tottenham should not distract from Manchester United’s obvious flaws - (2021)
Manchester United to go unbeaten for the rest of the season? Just 12-1. Whether you like the odds or not they reflect the steep improvement brought about by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and perhaps a little of that more intangible quality: optimism.
The victory over Tottenham at Wembley was United’s sixth on the spin since Solskjaer replaced the old malcontent Jose Mourinho, a run already being spun by romantics into a powerful advocacy for appointing the fantasy caretaker to the post full-time.
If it is the case that we learn more in defeat then what possible lessons might Solskjaer draw down in victory? One would be to accept that outcomes in difficult games are often determined by quirk as much as strategy. United prevailed in the end because of David De Gea’s excellence. Spurs dominated the ball in the final half hour, controlled the tempo of the game and created chance after chance.
The result was therefore not evidence of United’s expansive and developing qualities under Solskjaer but the value of an old defensive reflex familiar under Mourinho, De Gea’s uncanny positioning and telescopic legs. On another day, like the one Spurs enjoyed at Old Trafford in August, the result could easily have reflected the weight of chances. United had the run of the ball. In August it ran for Spurs.
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Solskjaer appears to have a decent grip on reality. The Telegraph reported a first sighting of the hairdryer at half time during the FA Cup win at home to Reading. United were two up but momentarily back to the aimless, shapeless plod of the Mourinho epoch, slow on the ball and into the tackle. Though he made nine changes for the match you can see how the narrative might have linked negatively to that display had the result not gone United’s way at Wembley… got away with it against Reading, not Spurs, etc.
Football’s sliding doors have thus been kind to Solskjaer. In claiming that United made it hard for themselves in the second-half against Spurs he was tacitly acknowledging their good fortune. That is not to say United were undeserving of their luck. Solskjaer has transformed team spirit, has given the team licence and freedom to attack, and, as he says, victories breed confidence and belief.
The result should not mask the structural flaws that beset Mourinho, weaknesses only the transfer window can address immediately. United’s midfield still struggles to dominate possession against their top six rivals. They lack a genuine No 10 of the calibre of Christian Eriksen, a dominant centre-half, and world class full backs. De Gea will let one in eventually.
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The difference under Solskjaer is the joy the players take in each other and their work. This means they are more relaxed and productive in front of goal and not so fearful or easily fractured when they come under pressure. The gap to Arsenal in fifth, which stood at eight points, has closed. The gap to fourth place and Champions League qualification is now six points.
Like Real Madrid under Zinedine Zidane, United are returned to equilibrium under a manager sensitive to mood. The appointment of former assistant coach Mike Phelan and the regular appearances at the training ground of Sir Alex Ferguson, not in a coaching capacity, more avuncular spirit host, has erased the inhibitions that had taken hold in the corrosive atmosphere created by Mourinho.
So far so Solskjaer. The question to be answered now is at what point does the smiling alchemist morph from lucky charm into a serious candidate? You can get 40-1 on six more straight wins. If he pulls that off, perhaps the question goes away.
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