Manchester United, the world’s biggest football club, were experiencing an uncharacteristic slump before José Mourinho’s departure in December.
Slouched in sixth and bereft of their usual swagger, they were nineteen points off bitter rivals and League leaders Liverpool and eleven points away from the Champions League spots.
It had been an underwhelming start for the thirteen-time Premier League winners and the self-proclaimed ‘Special One’ was at the root of their problems.
From the alienation of Paul Pogba to an increasingly tedious desire to be the story, it was time to say goodbye to José.
Team selection under Solskjaer has been refreshing
Call in caretaker manager Olé Gunnar Solskjaer.
It was safe to say that the ex-United hero was returning to Old Trafford with a point to prove.
The Red Devils haven’t exactly fallen head over heels for the post-Ferguson brigade of managers. Following his retirement, it was never going to be easy but likely candidates Moyes, Van Gaal and now Mourinho have fallen short.
Towards the back-end of the Mourinho era, much of the criticism stemmed from his tempestuous relationship with Paul Pogba. The 25-year-old wasn’t being used to his strengths, cost £89 million and was having his creativity compromised by Mourinho’s defensive game plan. It was also one hell of a battle of egos.
Young talent sure isn’t hard to come by at Manchester United, with one of the greatest youth teams in the country, a production line that served Ferguson well.
So, it was also galling that the best of this system was not making regular starts. Two of England’s World Cup stars, Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford, in particular, were struggling under José. Rashford scoring just four goals and Lingard with only two in the first seventeen games of the season.
This has changed under the wing of Solskjaer. Undefeated in eight in the Premier League, they find themselves a cosy fourth, just a point into the Champions League spots (at the time of writing).
What has changed? Team selection under Solskjaer has been refreshing, as he’s picked the players the fans have been begging to see. The likes of Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera have all returned to regular football.
Significant changes to Pogba’s game are obvious in his goal contributions. From five Goals and four assists under Mourinho, to a staggering eight goals and four Assists in just eight under Solskjaer.
These statistics place Pogba top of the table in goal contributions in Europe since Solskjaer’s first game in charge in December.
Rashford and Lingard have also enjoyed an upturn in form, with the former scoring five and Lingard three.
There has also been a change in emphasis around the way the squad play; rather than simply defending their way through games, there has been an air of confidence around the squad. A feeling that they can get results from any match. The United way.
This new attitude was epitomised in their recent performance against Burnley. Finding themselves 2 – 0 down with 10 minutes to go at home, most teams would fold and assume it just was not their day. Although in a late push, an 87th-minute Pogba penalty and a 92nd-minute goal by Swedish Centre-half Victor Lindelöf saw United pull back a point in ‘Fergie Time’.
Firing 28 shots on goal in the game, they had the most efforts in a game at Old Trafford since December 2016.
Despite the impressive recent form in the premier league, the side lost 2 – 0 at home this week against a depleted PSG side, without the infamous Neymar available, which was their first setback.
United, however, never managed to get a foothold in the game, falling 1-0 down from a Kimpembe header just inside the second half.
Hopes of a comeback were quickly buried by an efficient counter-attack by ex-United man Angel Di Maria and World Cup superstar Mbappe who slotted past De Gea to decide the win.
This result was uncharacteristic of Solskjaer’s United but shouldn’t define them; this round is one of two legs and I am sure fans can expect a resurgence going into the next round.
These are positive times for United, with an exciting couple of weeks to look forward to. Facing Champions League competitors Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, a chance to ruin title hopes for rivals Liverpool at Old Trafford, the second tie against Paris Saint Germain and the Manchester Derby, are all to look forward to.
Photograph: Aleksandr Osipov via Wikimedia Commons