No matter what happens next, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will always have the 179th Manchester derby

Whatever happens, this will rank alongside the remarkable away-goals victory in Paris which convinced Ed Woodward and the Glazer family that Solskjaer should become the fourth permanent successor to Sir Alex Ferguson

Mark Critchley
Etihad Stadium
Saturday 07 December 2019 20:38
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On days like this, you can begin to understand why those who call the shots at one of the biggest football clubs in the world could not wait to offer a three-year-contract to a manager whose only achievements to date are two Tippeligaen titles, a Norwegian Cup and four reserve honours which carry the [citation needed] tag on Wikipedia.

There are some who argue that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is the Premier League’s least capable coach and the one least suited to the monumental task of turning the Manchester United tanker around. On the evidence of the last nine months or so, it is difficult to argue otherwise. History may ultimately prove they have a point.

But even if this all ends as many expect it to – with hot tears, a few happy memories but many, many regrets – he will always have the 179th Manchester derby, the evening when his players masterfully exploited the flaws inherent in the reigning champions of England and Solskjaer himself tactically outwitted the man regarded as the finest coach in the world.

Whatever happens, this will rank alongside the remarkable away-goals victory in Paris which convinced Ed Woodward and the Glazer family that Solskjaer should become the fourth permanent successor to Sir Alex Ferguson. That was a night of breathless counter-attacking and desperate defending, which brought new definitions to the term ‘last-ditch’.

This was all that and more, from the moment Marcus Rashford established their lead from the penalty spot, to when that lead was doubled brilliantly minutes later by Anthony Martial, to a frantic final five minutes plus stoppage time after Nicolas Otamendi’s consolation. Manchester City had complaintsabout the penalty and more still at the end of the first half when Fred potentially handled inside the area, but both calls were confirmed by VAR and correct.

Like at Anfield last month, City fell on the wrong side of tight, contentious refereeing decisions. That is likely to be the explanation for this defeat for Guardiola, his players and many of the supporters too. But as a version of events, it gives too little credit to a United side which crossed the city of Manchester with a precise game plan and executed it to near perfection.

Under Solskjaer, United have been fairly accused of being one-trick ponies. But what a trick it is when it so easily lures opponents into a false sense of security, then hitting them on the counter-attack through the speed of Rashford, Martial and Daniel James, all of whom were excellent. Rashford’s goal saw him equal his best-ever Premier League haul in December, while James and Martial’s combinations for the second were a particular joy.

There was still work to do at the interval. United have thrown away eight leads to either draw or suffer a defeat this season. Before Wednesday’s win over Tottenham, Solskjaer reminded his players that killing games off was “the next step in the process”. His players were “learning on the job together” and “benefiting from new experiences and lessons every week.”

One reporter present that night remarked that these were more like the words of a head of year coordinating work experience placements than those of an elite manager, but the defence came of age. Aaron Wan-Bissaka was almost omnipresent, always on hand to shut down an ineffective Raheem Sterling. Victor Lindelof was not far behind, with one critical block on Kevin de Bruyne at the start of the second half.

Yet to single out individuals is unfair. This was the triumph of a system, one that Solskjaer has honed to give an otherwise mediocre side the hope of beating any elite opponent. This was their ninth win against ‘top seven’ opposition since Solskjaer’s appointment as caretaker, with four draws and just two defeats. If only they could play against opponents who want the ball every week.

That will not concern Solskjaer tonight, however. He started the week facing the increasingly real possibility of losing his job if United suffered back-to-back defeats. Despite the club’s insistence that there is faith and support in his methods, things could always change quickly. That faith may yet be tested, but it is fed by the sheer thrill of days like this, when Solskjaer feels purely, indisputably United.

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