Manchester United come back to what they know

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
December 22, 2018

Cardiff City 1 Manchester United 5.

The most common description of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s task at Manchester United, the one most often used to frame his mission over the five months, is “free hit”. Life at Old Trafford has been so dour, the air so thick with acrimony, that the atmosphere couldn’t possibly get any worse. United are already out of contention in the league, have been eliminated from the league cup, and face a seemingly impossible mission in Europe. For the rest of the season, Solskjaer is camp councillor; his job is just to reclaim hearts and minds in the stands, and to draw a few smiles on the pitch.

United arrived in Cardiff lighter and cleaner, out from underneath from the burdensome Mourinho era and free of its stench. According to football lore, what happens next will be entirely predictable: the freedom will return to their football, the goals will start to tumble out of a side stocked with attacking potential, and the club’s nose will gradually begin to rise.

Cardiff began the day hoping to delay that smooth recovery. Quietly, Neil Warnock and his players have found a steady footing at this level and entered this game have won three home games in succession. Those nine points haven’t arrived via any great flair, but they’ve deserved each and every one of them; in spite of their limitations, they have forged a reputation for a tough, rough-housing style which, over the course of 90 minutes, tends to expose whatever weaknesses their opponents bring across the border.

Brighton’s knees gave way here, Wolves and Southampton also lost their nerve. But Manchester United held firm with surprising ease.

The benefit of new manager bounce, that strange phenomena seemingly powered solely by a change of voice, is that it’s unquantifiable. It’s footballing voodoo accepted as fact and that, in this case, is just as well. Solskjaer isn’t quite a managerial novice, he did win back-to-back Norwegian titles at the beginning of the decade, but three days is not enough time to have untangled the mess he inherited.

So Solksjaer hasn’t necessarily done anything, nor was there much evidence of any change. With Romelu Lukaka missing for personal reasons, the attacking three of Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and the Marcus Rashford picked itself. Behind them, Ander Herrera, Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic were an obvious midfield and, in defence, there were no great revolution either. Phil Jones partnered Victor Lindelof, Ashley Young and Luke Shaw started as the full-back tandem.

It would be convenient to report a shift in United’s tone. If this had been a win of upbeat, staccato passing and refreshing invention, then that would have suited the mood. In truth, there was little of that. They did score some fine goals. Marcus Rashford’s wobbling free-kick gave them the lead, Ander Herrera’s deflected drive looped in to double it and, immediately following a Victor Camarasa penalty which had appeared to give Cardiff a foothold, Anthony Martial skipped through the home defence to add a third and take it away.

Given the recent poverty of their side’s football, there was certainly enough here for the travelling supporters to be enthusiastic about. It was also the first time in 13 months that Manchester United had scored three times in a first-half and, of course, that was also a welcome balm.

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But whether the performance amounted to anything of technical significance is a different matter. Instead, United seemed to benefit most from their own framing. Whatever Jose Mourinho’s tactical and emotional deficiencies may have been, perhaps his greatest issue was the ideological chasm which existed between him and his employer. Mourinho may have coveted that job for over a decade, but he was never obviously suited to it. Old Trafford is a place of managerial dynasties and he, of course, is the modern era’s pre-eminent short-termist. Even during his reign’s occasional positives – the return to the top-four, the winning of the Europa League – the suspicion was always that he was at Old Trafford to provide a quick jolt rather than to actually build something. In that part of the world, that can only ever create distrust.

The immediate value in Solskjaer’s hiring, then, is the curing of that problem. For now, with the season’s objectives all retracted back to zero, Manchester United sensory values are all more important. Solskjaer, befitting someone of his DNA, was serenaded with all the songs from 1999 and when he did venture out into his technical area, he was often joined by Mike Phelan, another who radiates the warmth of a happier, more successful era and whose lineage can be traced back to the right places. It matters. In time, the novelty will wear away and Solskjaer will be subjected to a more critical eye. For now, his influence can be assessed purely in terms of the familial comfort he has brought. Like going home to your parents home after a break-up or spending time with old friends after losing your job, Solskjaer’s purpose isn’t to alter any realities, but to provide respite from a trauma and a happier perspective on the difficult next steps.

Which isn’t to say that United played without merit. In fact, their defence was meaner than it has been for months. Jones and Lindelof dealt with the unique threat of Callum Paterson very well and Cardiff’s assault on the visitors’ penalty box was often denied at source. With a two-goal lead at the break, some of United’s caution, built up and hardened over those many unhappy months, did visibly recede. Out came the flicks and neat touches, forward and into space went the attacking runners. The game’s Gods can sleep easy, no footballing wheels were reinvented tonight, but there was at least a trace of attacking chemistry; it would be over-egging it to say that their angles and craft set a chilly stadium ablaze, but the players did at least seem to recognise one another.

Three goals became four on 57 minutes, when Jesse Lingard weaved through the penalty box and, for reasons unclear, fell over. Michael Oliver had already given one soft penalty in the game, the decision to penalise Rashford’s handball in the first-half was highly generous, and he gave another. Lingard himself stepped up, sending Neil Etheridge the wrong way.

This was a day when everyone seemed intent to show their best face. The Mourinho recriminations are far from over, the day began with Alexis Sanchez having to deny accusations that he and his teammates were betting on the Portuguese’s departure date, but Saturday saw all those still employed by Manchester United with one eye on their own personal stock. Paul Pogba looked particularly keen to appear receptive when Solksjaer beckoned him to the touchline to take instruction and, when he came on late in the second-half, substitute Fred high-fived everyone on the bench before taking the field. Real or for show? Time will tell, but the message has certainly got through: today was to be about unity.

So, job done for Solskjaer and a first test passed. Before the end, a well-weighted Pogba pass sent Lingard clear once more and he calmly rounded Etheridge to slide in a fifth goal. He danced in front of his fans, his manager beamed and clenched both fists, and the Cardiff supporters streamed for the exists. It was one final roar and one more satisfying optic to end a day which was absolutely about how everything looked and felt.

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