Man Utd 2-0 Man City: ‘It’s a privilege to be manager of this young squad’ – Solskjaer
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been searching for a significant moment since being handed the job as Manchester United manager while basking in the afterglow of a caretaker’s honeymoon period.
As he strolled down the touchline in an Old Trafford downpour at the conclusion of Manchester United’s first Premier League double over Manchester City since 2009-10, the first since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, this felt a little like it.
It was all done in the euphoria of a 2-0 victory but as Solskjaer shielded his eyes and tried to find his family in the crowd and his name resounded around the stadium, he looked like the heavy burden of this mammoth job was, in part, being lightened.
Solskjaer has been struggling as much as his side to convince the sceptics this season, as one of football’s superpowers lurked on the margins of the Premier League’s top four.
And yet, with a run of 10 games unbeaten and the addition of an operator who looks a genuine class act in Bruno Fernandes from Sporting Lisbon, Solskjaer now at least has the opportunity to clear away some of the doubts come season’s end.
United have a favourable draw against Austrians LASK in the last 16 of the Europa League, travel to Premier League strugglers Norwich City in the FA Cup quarter-final and now stand only three points behind fourth-placed Chelsea in the Premier League and five behind Leicester City in third.
Solskjaer and Fernandes have ‘turned Man Utd around’
The clouds that looked to be closing in during those first months of the season have, for now, rolled away.
It must also be no time to get carried away.
Solskjaer will be judged on United’s final league placing and, for context they are 37 points behind the old foe Liverpool as they run away with their first title in 30 years. This is the gap any Manchester United manager will eventually be required to bridge.
In just a few weeks, however, there has been a major shift in mood and momentum inside Old Trafford.
It is certainly a far cry from when a lame 2-0 loss at Liverpool on 19 January was followed by a 2-0 loss at home to Burnley on the following Wednesday.
United actually travelled to League One Tranmere Rovers in the FA Cup fourth round on 26 January with Solskjaer under serious and increasing scrutiny but the release and relaxation of a 6-0 win kick-started this fine run.
Those of us who still remain to be fully convinced of Solskjaer’s credentials must not be churlish enough to avoid giving him full credit when it is due.
He has now overcome Manchester City and manager Pep Guardiola three times this season, twice in the league and once in a losing cause in the Carabao Cup semi-final second leg at Etihad Stadium. As previous seasons have told us, this takes some doing.
Solskjaer’s cause has been helped by what appears to be two particularly smart pieces of recruitment, the lack of which has been the failing at the heart of so many of Manchester United’s problems since Ferguson’s departure.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka, at £45m, looks a superb investment for now and the future. He is another example of England’s riches at right-back alongside Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold and Reece James at Chelsea.
Wan-Bissaka, 22, won his battle with Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling hands down. Sterling had his moments but the youngster signed from Crystal Palace in the summer hounded him into submission on many occasions, winning roars of approval from Old Trafford’s gallery.
And at the hub of it all was Fernandes, the 25-year-old signed from Sporting Lisbon for an initial £47m that could eventually rise to £67.7m with add-ons.
Whatever the eventual bill, Fernandes is making those prices look like a bargain – although it still begs the question as to why United totally dismissed interest in him in the summer and left it so late to get a deal over the line during the January transfer window.
Bruno Fernandes signed for Manchester United for £47m in January
Fernandes provides United with a focal point, a game changer and a player whose speed of thought and action is already offering Solskjaer’s team a new dimension.
Let the statistics speak for themselves.
Since making his Premier League debut in the goalless draw at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers on 1 February, Fernandes has been involved in more goals in the competition than any other player with two goals and three assists.
Take United’s first goal here, a quickly-taken free-kick on the half-hour, lifted over Manchester City’s wall, opponents caught off guard and the job completed when Anthony Martial struck a finish past keeper Ederson.
Yes, it required phase one of Ederson’s personal nightmare day to allow Martial’s shot to squirm in but Solskjaer will have been elated at the way two of his most threatening players are so clearly on the same wavelength in the crucial moment so early in their relationship.
Fernandes has pushed thoughts of the permanently absent Paul Pogba even further into the background.
At the other end, Solskjaer’s defence is starting to have a look of solidity, with eight clean sheets and only two goals conceded in their past 10 games in all competitions.
Solskjaer’s side has looked a more impressive package in that sequence with the influence of Fernandes adding the X-factor to what was a potentially potent attack.
No wonder Solskjaer was smiling at the final whistle as he revelled in a victory over their derby rivals that was relished just as much inside a thunderous Old Trafford.
The final judgement on Solksjaer’s first full season in charge must be reserved and shaped by these final weeks of the season – but this may just have been his most satisfying day of the campaign, with things looking a whole lot more satisfactory for the Norwegian.