It’s taken five attempts, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has done it.
In his short reign as Manchester United manager he has planned and executed victories over managerial peers such as Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, Brendan Rodgers, Mauricio Pochettino, Thomas Tuchel and Carlo Ancelotti. On Sunday, he added the one glaring omission from his CV; Jurgen Klopp’s name can now go on there, after United prevailed 3-2 over Liverpool.
This raucous FA Cup tie was virtually the antithesis of the cautious shadow boxing between these two sides at Anfield a week ago. Bruno Fernandes settled this gloves off, square-go in the car park with a brilliant free kick twelve minutes from time. Beating rivals is never anything less than satisfying, but there was a different residual glow after this one. The hidden agenda to this game was always Solskjaer’s United landing one on Liverpool, irrespective of the competition. Thus achieved, it marks another important point in the development of his team.
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Solskjaer lauds Fernandes after win over Liverpool
That road has seen United travel from sixth to third and now top of the Premier League. Whether it’s acknowledged or not, Solskjaer’s influence on that transformation is right there in plain sight and was evident again today. His subtle yet decisive reshaping of the misfiring squad he inherited two years ago allowed him to rotate his personnel today and still grab the landmark victory he was looking for. Also obvious was the way Solskjaer targeted the left wing and inside left channel to pick Liverpool open at their weakest point, while deploying Edinson Cavani as a high-octane pest as Liverpool tried to play out from the back.
Key in the victory was Marcus Rashford, who under Solskjaer is now harnessing the devastating potential he first showed the world in 2016. Paul Pogba is starting to become the dominant Premier League midfielder he should be, Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka have been installed into a back four looking increasingly comfortable in possession and the careers of Luke Shaw, Anthony Martial, Fred and Scott McTominay to name just four have been reenergised. Quite simply, there are too many things going right at Old Trafford at the moment for it to be put down to a random collision of circumstances with no guiding hand from the manager.
Ambitious talk of the Premier League title is still just that; the 2020/21 season is only at the halfway stage and the difficulties all teams are facing is clear in the bunched nature of the table at this point. This United team have seen alarming slumps of their own under Solskjaer, whose reign at Old Trafford has at times felt like the opposite of the curate’s egg – very good, but certain parts have been eye-wateringly bad. The last troubling stretch was at the beginning of the season, where United struggled after their delayed start only to pull through it decisively in November.
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Either side of that, and since the signing of Fernandes – a player identified, purchased and deployed by Solskjaer to release the full potential of his side – United’s form has been mightily impressive. If they are in a similar league position three-quarters of the way through this campaign as they are now then Manchester City, Liverpool, Leicester City and whoever else might be hovering around first place at that point have got a problem.
So many tilts at the league title are underpinned by momentum. As a player, Solskjaer was integral in generating that when he scored an injury-time FA Cup winner against these same opponents – twenty-two years ago to this very day – to spark a run of iron-willed form that culminated in the Treble in 1999. This United team are not that one, or anywhere close, but that’s irrelevant to how close they can go to the title this season. Momentum is a powerful force in any hands; where Liverpool’s seems to have disappeared for now, United’s is only gathering pace.