“Football is easy if you have good players”, stated Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after an emphatic 5-1 win – as Manchester United scored five goals in a Premier League game for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson’s final game in charge of the club.
And between the two events, United have gone through a myriad of changes – in personnel and personality, not only losing an awful lot of football matches but also some of their identity in the process.
However, in appointing Solskjaer – scorer of the club’s most famous goal, United may have put themselves on a path to restoring what Manchester United primarily should be about above all: a bringer of unbridled joy to their supporters in the way they approach games, no matter the end result.
On Saturday, within minutes, the visitors opened the scoring, thanks to a powerful Rashford freekick who followed it with a celebratory knee-slide all too familiar for the fans and the man on the touchline, embracing the new figure of authority in charge, who in his words wanted “to put the smiles back on the supporters’ faces”. That, he did.
And United, unlike under their previous managers – continued to press on. With full-backs higher up the pitch throughout the game, Solskjaer’s United pinned the home side back in their own half as they seemed delighted to keep the ball – move it in the final third, where mistakes are generally more common. Yet, they feared not.
With 75% possession, United’s midfield three of Pogba, Matic, and Herrera amassed close to 300 touches – which is roughly just 50 fewer than that managed by the entire Cardiff team. The three up front in Rashford, Lingard, and Martial also seemed to really enjoy themselves on the pitch – with flicks, tricks, and one-touch football, enthralling the 2000 vociferous fans who had made the long trip south.
The most noticeable change in United – was not the third goal itself – which admittedly, would not have been out of place in any successful United side in the nineties and naughties. But it was what ensued after. In the last five years, there have been times when United have good patches in games – where they have scored 2 quick goals in succession – and decelerate, thereby invite pressure late on.
Jose Mourinho, who is a stickler for positional discipline and robust defending is also a fervent non-believer of flair and expression on the pitch. The Portuguese could nonchalantly quote Hegel if he wanted to make his point and also hate “poets”, who, in his opinion, don’t win titles.
Manchester United, under Sir Alex and Sir Matt Busby have built into the club’s DNA – the duty to excite their supporters – make them proud of how the workers in factories identify themselves when they go to watch their beloved football team on a Saturday afternoon, to forget all their toil in the real world – for those sacred 90 minutes a week.
Even though the economy around the game and the demographics of the average fan has changed by and large, football has, on a fundamental level, remained the same. In that football has always been about forging that connection with the supporters – through style and effort. And in the final weeks under the departed Mourinho, United most often had neither.
While Solskjaer, who has spent 11 plus years at Old Trafford as a player and later reserve team manager, steeped in the culture of Fergie’s famously cut-throat football, late goals and copious amounts of success, attempts to bring the two virtues back to United before the end of this tenure – we wait, but this time with a renewed sense of optimism and belief that the United of the old may not be too far away.