With Ole at the wheel, United know where they are going
- Emphatic win against City shows Solskjaer’s tactical nous and the ability to improve players
If ever conversations on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer among Manchester United loyalists go beyond the impact substitute who helped steal the 1999 Champions League trophy, it could be because of what happened at Etihad Stadium on Sunday. Goals on either side of half-time from Bruno Fernandes and Luke Shaw helped United win 2-0 but it was a night where the margin did not quite reflect the emphatic manner of victory.
This was City’s first defeat in 29 games across all competition since they lost 0-2 to Tottenham Hotspur on November 21 last year. City had won 21 of those games and went into the Manchester derby with 15 successive league wins in which they had leaked only five goals. City are alive and well in three competitions including the Champions League, and the Premier League is theirs to lose. Even after Sunday’s defeat, City lead the league by 11 points.
United went into the tie having played three successive goalless draws including one against Real Sociedad in the Europa League, and desperately seeking their first win against a team in the Premiership’s top six. The previous eight games against the ‘Big Six’ had yielded six draws and two losses.
And yet, if Manchester was red on Sunday night it was because of how United caught City by surprise at the start and produced a well-drilled defensive performance thereafter. Crucial to United extending their unbeaten away run in the league to 22 games was how Solskjaer jettisoned counter-attack for attack from the off. It led to the poor challenge by Gabriel Jesus on Anthony Martial 34 seconds into the game. By the second minute--364 days after Solskjaer had beaten City 2-0 at Old Trafford--Fernandes had converted the penalty to put United ahead.
By the fourth minute, it could have been 2-0 but an attempt from Shaw’s weaker right foot went straight to Ederson. It was the start of an engaging contest between Shaw and City’s right back Joao Cancelo, one which was won by the player in red. Marcus Rashford let fly from range in the 16th minute and proof of which way the game was going lay in Kevin de Bruyne making just three passes by the 20th.
Pep Guardiola is known to be obsessive in his quest for perfection. There have been reports of City’s groundstaff being told to prune the grass to 19mm--on being told that the weather in Manchester is different from Barcelona and Munich, a compromise was reached at 23mm. Guardiola also told them how much the pitch should be watered so that City’s passing game is at its best. In the past, Guardiola has got sports psychologists to get his players to understand the importance of representing one part of Manchester. And in January, City Football Group, which owns Manchester City, signed Laurie Shaw, who has a Phd in astrophysics, has read at Cambridge, Yale and Harvard and has worked with hedge funds. His brief: use machine learning to better manage players’ injury, illness and fatigue.
Since that loss to Spurs, Guardiola has recalibrated City’s approach. They run less and, in variation of an idea that got Philipp Lahm to play in midfield at Bayern, Cancelo is a full back who creates attacking opportunities. With vast resources at his disposal, Guardiola has bought well and created a team whose football has looked surreal at times. One that has played 19,207 passes, 649 more than Liverpool (who are second-best in terms of passes) and 3712 more than United in the league this term. “They are difficult on the ball and tough to play against,” said Fernandes.
And yet for close to 20 minutes on Sunday, City were bossed. United ended with 35% possession but still had five attempts on target, one less than City. From one of them, Martial could have made it 3-0 in the 69th minute, but with only Ederson to beat, he found the goalkeeper. Two minutes later, Marcus Rashford dashed across the length of the pitch to protect his goal and tackle Riyad Mahrez. It was an important, but not the only, instance of defensive resilience United showed. “We had to defend well. No team in the world of football has a chance against Manchester City without being collective,” said the United manager.
“Today, we did almost everything perfect," said Fernandes. The early goal helped but as Fernandes pointed out in the post-match flash interview, United had also got an early penalty against Spurs before losing 1-6.
What was different at Etihad was how United exploited space behind City’s full backs. Proof of which came in Shaw’s 50th minute goal, which was started by goalie Dean Henderson’s throw. Cancelo was taken out first, De Bruyne outsped next, before Shaw exchanged passes with Rashford and fired a left-footer that found its way past City defenders into Ederson’s goal. That Cancelo needed to be substituted soon after the hour showed how Shaw and Rashford had ruined his evening. In Rashford, Daniel James and Martial, United have players whose pace City couldn’t deal with. And United pressed so aggressively that it drew praise from Guardiola.
Under Solskjaer, Shaw has emerged a different player from the one low in confidence when Jose Mourinho was coach. “The second goal was magnificent. Luke just showed what he is about. He was a massive doubt this morning and had to go through a fitness test to play. What a performance,” said Solskjaer.
In front of the back four, industrious central midfielders Scott McTominay and Fred are also having a good season. “Fred and McTominay had a big job, but you could see how tight and compact they were, there was no space for City in there,” Paul Scholes told Premier League Productions. “City’s best players are obviously De Bruyne and (Ilkay) Guendogan, so if you stop them you go a long way to stopping City. You have to say they didn’t really have an influence on the game.”
And from Henderson to Mason Greenwood, Solskjaer has given a number of academy players a run out. With United losing 100m pounds in revenue due to closed door games and absence of merchandise sale, it is an idea that will gain currency.
“The progress made by Ole and the players this season is clear,” Ed Woodward, United’s chief executive officer, has said. His third away derby win means Solskjaer has never lost at City since taking over in December 2018. Under the unassuming Norwegian, United are far from being out of the woods yet but it shows how far they have come--around a year back, Old Trafford would react angrily at him even when their team was winning. This win should put him and the team in the right mood for the Europa League round-of-16 tie against AC Milan, who like United are second in the league, on Thursday.