Maybe it’s the season to be cautious. Perhaps the extraordinary times we live in call for security over flamboyance. If so, this was a Manchester derby in keeping with the spirit of the age.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was a man under pressure, having been knocked out of the Champions League. Pep Guardiola, currently looks like a man who’s settled for middle aged contentment, with a new contract and a settled home after years of trailblazing through Europe. Yet his best work of his early years seems left behind him as finds himself comfortable but coaching a team that struggles to score.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer seemed determined not to lose rather than being desperate to win
As such, it had the makings of a humdrum affair rather than a classic. Solskjaer had abandoned the back three, which had come to grief in Leipzig and reverted to a back four. And there is nothing wrong with having a variety of formations suit different occasions. Indeed, a back three served them well in the 2-0 win over Manchester City here last March.
The plan was flood the midfield with Scott McTominay, Fred, Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes. It’s a standard anti-City device, now well worn; force them out wide and make them play floaty hopeful crosses into the box from deep, rather than allowing them to sweep through the centre of the pitch with incisive passing.
It worked up to a point. On the downside, Manchester City still had the better chances. Gabriel Jesus shot over when played in delightfully by Riyad Mahrez on 27 minutes. And David de Gea had to block sharply from Mahrez on 35 minutes after one of the few sweeping City moves up pitch.
De Bruyne played the final ball deftly but then scuffed the rebound over. Indeed, this was a day n which De Buryne seemed a mere mortal. On 68 minutes Jesus had a chance from close range blocked by Harry Maguire and De Buryne couldn’t convert the rebound. It may well have been ruled offside but it was a chance at least.
Bruno Fernandes had some impressive moments but it wasn’t a standout display from United
United were, as their wont under Solskjaer, were good in bits. So on 29 minutes when wan Bissaka and Fernandes combined down the right, with neat feet, intrictate passing and rell speed, they looked scintillating, even if Fernandes fouled up the final pass. And they looked like a considerable threat when Fernandes swept in a ball for Rashford to run on to, coax Kyle Walker into a rash tackle and briefly win a penalty. VAR would intervene to show that Rashford was offside, so it came to nothing.
As such, it lacked a definitive moment by which to judge Solskjaer. Two years into his tenure, there is no real discernible style of play that you could call his own, no real clear idea of what his default formation is. All his best ideas are very on trend but unoriginal.
So this team presses hard – though this season, not as much as last season – but never like Liverpool. They pass out from the back, but never with the accomplished polish of Pep Guarduola team. (To be fair, right now Manchester City don’t play with the accomplished polish of a Pep Guardiola team.)
They have the attacking instincts of a Sir Alex Ferguson team but without the solidity of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.
Almost two years into his tenure, Solskjaer’s United don’t have a discernible style of play
And they’re not without spirit, Indeed, Solskjaer seems to evoke their comebacks like some like of sacred rite which is performed in honour of Ferguson, though you suspect the former manager would just rather they put in a performance for 90 minutes.
Yet, despite the fact that City ended up having the best first half chances, Guardiola’s team are far from being the fearful team that sweeps through opponents. Indeed, they seemed scarred by their three defeats against United last season, forever fearful of the counter attack.
We waited for a decisive substitution. We looked maybe towards Phil Foden, warpped up warm on the bench, to inject some vitality. And we looked and waited in vain.
Ah, the counter attack. That is Solskjaer’s signature move. All his best performance have come playing that way. His best was at the Etihad last season when they beat City 2-1. And it is yrue that Sir Alex’s tea were a fearsome counter attacking force. It’s just they were so much more than that.
If United have a plan for Donny van de Beek, who was on the bench, it is yet to become clear
They could also break down teams who sat back against them. whether by design, or sheer individual brilliance – be that Eric Cantona, Paul Scholes, Cristiano Ronaldo or Wayne Rooney – they found a way, certainly in the Premier League. And they had a plan when teams sat deep against them. Too often, Solskjaer’s team are baffled when asked to take the initiative.
At best you could argue that incrementally United are making baby steps towards those days Clearly, the team has more coherence and quality than it did under Louis van Gaal. At its best, it is better to watch than under Jose Mourinho. Though at its worst, there’s highly debatable and they have plenty of bad days. And, if trophies is you r thing, you’d take Mourinho over Solskjear any day.
Solskjaer isn’t in a position where he should be sacked but United are far from their glory days
But they aren’t terrible, despite the calamities in Istanbul and Leipzig. And they have fine players. The signing of Bruno Fernandes has been one of the most inspired in recent years and suggested greater success in recruitment. Against that, if there was a plan for Donny van de Beek, it’s yet to become clear.
And what would we make of this team if it had Jadon Sancho and RB Leipzig’s Dayot Upamecano, one of Europe’s best centre halves, in it? Those are the players Solskjaer wanted in the sumer which United didn’t get. That would make them a strong proposition. But still, a team relying of indivudal brilliance of fine players rather than a clear plan.
Still, of the above allows Solskjaer to survive. You can characterise it as limping along wounded or as steady progress.
No doubt the Glazers and Ed Woodward would like to see this current era as the equivalent of the board backing Sir Alex Ferguson in the last 1980s, a foundational period with the glory years are just around the corner. It looks like something less glamorous than that. Not bad enough to be merit the sack. Not good enough to return to glory.