Has Ole Gunnar Solskjaer finally found his Manchester United template?
Last night’s 3-0 win over Partizan Belgrade to progress through the Europa League group stage was arguably more convincing and more encouraging a display than that 4-0 against Chelsea back in August
Was this a turning point or, like that recent run of three away wins on the bounce, another false dawn? Only time will tell, but it would be churlish to be anything other than positive about Manchester United’s first truly impressive victory at Old Trafford for some months, if not longer.
For the first time since the opening weekend of the Premier League season, they scored twice at home. In fact, this 3-0 win over Partizan Belgrade to progress through the Europa League group stage was arguably more convincing and more encouraging a display than that 4-0 against Chelsea back in August.
Yes, this victory came by a slightly smaller margin. Yes, it came against a far weaker side. But this time, United were in control of proceedings. They were proactive rather than reactive. They dominated possession and knew what to do with it. The slick passing, intelligent movement and direct play which Solskjaer espouses were all reflected in the performance and did not come at the cost of sacrificing the ball.
“This is a little bit of a template on how we want to play,” he declared post-match. “It was pleasing for me that we went forward.” United have let go of five leads already this term, but not this time. “We needed the second and third. Too many times we’re 1-0 up and haven’t got the second. But it’s learning, these boys are learning and tonight will give them loads of pointers of how we play when we’re performing well.”
United had registered only one shot on target in their previous two Europa League outings, yet they tested Partizan’s goalkeeper Vadimir Stojkovic twice inside the opening quarter-of-an-hour. If Marcus Rashford’s radar had been properly calibrated, that number would have been higher still. He shanked two early opportunities, one wide and the other over the crossbar.
But on a night which ended with goals for all three members of United’s starting attack – Rashford, Mason Greenwood and Anthony Martial – Solskjaer will not be overly concerned with the ones that got away. If anything, it is encouraging that United finally created enough chances to be able to miss a few of them and still win comfortably. That is a rare privilege for a team that tends to subsist on penalties.
Nobody is getting carried away. An out-of-form Partizan side were incapable of setting themselves up in the sort of basic, organised defensive shape which has left United’s attack stumped on more than a few occasions already this season. Instead, they left themselves wide open and were ripe for picking. Solskjaer admitted this much. “It’s the opposition that allows you to play this way as well,” he said. “No disrespect to Partizan but they gave us spaces.”
The challenge now is to take consistency from a run of four wins in five games and replicate their cup form in the league. This was United’s fourth win in a cup competition this season, one more than they have managed in the top flight in total. Three wins in 11 league games is a dreadful record. At least progressing in Europe with two games to spare should help ease the selection issues which come at the start of this busy winter schedule.
Solskjaer will know – particularly after the defeat to Bournemouth last weekend – that the post-Ferguson United is never more than one defeat away from a full-scale crisis. There are still plenty of concerns about his system, style of play and suitability to the role. None of them are answered by one positive result. But for once at least, Old Trafford saw the ‘template’ for a Solskjaer team and on this occasion, it was one that worked.