CAN SOLSKAJAER GET MANCHESTER UNITED BUZZING AGAIN
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer first game in temporary charge of Manchester United couldn’t have gone any better. The team score five goals for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson’s curtain call, but it was their third against a limited Cardiff City – scored by Anthony Martial – that suggested Solskjaer can heal the wounds opened by Jose Mourinho.
Martial, Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard – three of the players United’s revival must be built upon – combined brilliantly with a series of quick one-touch passes that cut through Cardiff’s retreating defence and ended with a composed finish.
It was a goal that did not feel like a fluke or accident, as such goals felt were rare during Mourinho’s time. Instead, this was the product of a plan to play fast, intricate football; part of a coherent attacking structure, among players who previously looked lost in the final third.
United’s travelling support will hope this is evidence of things to come, though they should not get carried away. Lest we forget, David Moyes began his disastrous tenure with a similarly dominant victory just a few miles away from here, further along the south Wales coastline. The forthcoming run of fixtures is favourable too. This improvement must now be sustained.
Still, Neil Warnock’s Cardiff City are a tougher proposition than many expected before the start of the season and had won their last four at home before this 5-1 defeat. United, meanwhile, had lost on their last three visits to newly-promoted clubs and won just one of their last six top-flight matches. A win – indeed, any win – would’ve done nicely.
That it should come with five goals, with evidence of a clear commitment to attacking, progressive football, and with the club’s most talented players contributing rather than sitting disgruntled and alienated on the sidelines, will only make these important three points even more welcome.
Solskjaer restored Pogba and Martial to the starting line-up, though the first team sheet of his caretaker reign was not perhaps quite as radical a departure from Mourinho as expected. Fred, the £52million summer signing, was not granted a seventh league start, while Phil Jones started in the centre of defence ahead of Eric Bailly.
Yet even if the faces were familiar, the football was not and the caretaker’s reign could hardly have begun better with a shock of brilliant optimism to cure the months of mounting despair. A scorer of late goals in his playing time, Solskjaer started with an early one.
When United were awarded an early free-kick after Aron Gunnarsson had dragged Pogba to the ground in the third minute of play, the World Cup-winning midfielder ran over the dead ball, leaving Marcus Rashford to strike it through a gap in the wall created by Nemanja Matic being a nuisance. Etheridge had taken one, fatal step to his left. The ball veered right and
It was the start Solskjaer would have hoped for ever since accepting the call four days ago and Ed Woodward, the man on the other end of the phone, smirked from his position in the stands. Further encouraging signs would follow, with United playing quick, one-touch if sometimes imprecise football in the half that followed.
Yet for all United’s progressive play, there was little in the way of clear-cut chances and when the second eventually came, it was more than a touch fortunate. Ander Herrera’s attempt from range, facilitated by Pogba’s cross-field pass, was aided by a deflection off Greg Cunningham’s shoulder which took it out of Etheridge’s reach.
On the balance of play, Cardiff did not deserve to be two goals behind and promptly reduced the arrears from the penalty spot, though in contentious fashion. Victor Camarasa scored to David de Gea’s right after Rashford was judged to have handled the ball.
It was a borderline call. There was no doubt that Rashford had deliberately controlled the ball, seemingly with the upper part of his right arm, but he argued that he led with his shoulder. Michael Oliver, the match referee, disagreed and provided Cardiff with a route back into the contest.
Solskjaer would soon see his two-goal lead restored, however, and if United’s first two goals had a touch of fortune about them, with Etheridge only beaten from distance, the third was a product of the quick, incisive play that the Norwegian has promised to encourage in his six-month spell.
Minutes after Camarasa’s penalty, Martial, Pogba and Lingard combined to score the goal that defined this resurgent United performance. That it came so quickly after a setback was almost as impressive as its quality. A few weeks ago, Cardiff’s goal may have precipitated a collapse. Here, it provoked a perfect response.
United would increase their lead after the break by earning a questionable penalty of their own. Lingard was crowded out inside the box when, under pressure from Sol Bamba, he tumbled. Bamba appeared to make contact with the back of Lingard’s heel while attempting to chase, though the foul was not clear.
Lingard picked himself and converted, sending Etheridge the wrong way. The scoreline now matched that of Moyes’ debut, though as United searched for another, it was Ferguson’s last game that grew in relevance. For the first time since the Scot’s departure, that chaotic draw at West Bromwich Albion, could United score five?
It was a while coming but in the final minute of normal time, Lingard found it. After United’s midfield carried out Solskjaer’s instruction to harry and press their tiring opponents, the England international latched onto Pogba’s through ball, rounded Etheridge and fittingly ensured that Solskjaer’s start would mirror Ferguson’s end, as if tying an old era to the new.