On Tuesday evening ahead of the home game against Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur side, the odds on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer getting his marching orders from Manchester United were 7/2, with speculation that one more poor result could signal the end. Even the most optimistic of fans feared the worst ahead of the double header of Spurs and Manchester City within four days. The return of six points from the two games has signalled a total change in the atmosphere around the club, and the prospects for the season ahead. Saturday evening’s 1-2 win at the Etihad represents possibly the finest result of the post-Ferguson era, along with one of the best performances. Here are five things we learned:
1. Solskjaer got it right
Manchester City and Pep Guardiola have, by their own standards, had a poor start to the season. Prior to the Manchester derby, they had lost three league games this season. Having amassed 100 and 99 points respectively in the previous two seasons, this represents a dip in standards. However, they remain an incredibly formidable side with unbelievable technical ability, and a variety of attacking options all buying in to the same fiercely drilled Guardiola philosophy. They always dominate possession regardless of their opponents and play the vast majority of their football in the opposing half. Their victory over Chelsea a few weeks ago was the lowest percentage of possession (at 47%) that any of Guardiola’s sides have ever recorded – an unbelievable statistic. Conversely, this Manchester United side struggle when controlling games.
Solskjaer, therefore, chose to set up with a 4-2-3-1 formation, similar to the Spurs game. The only changes were Martial and Luke Shaw coming into the starting eleven. This provided an attacking quartet of Lingard, James, Rashford and Martial. At first glance, it has the appearance of a cavalier approach to a game where the opponents are virtually assured of their dominance. It was, though, United who threatened the most in the first 30 minutes. Solskjaer summarised after the game “We look so dangerous when we get the ball and go forward against arguably the best team in the world. To get a result and defend like we did and create as many chances… we should have been three or four up but for some good goalkeeping. Its hard to take the ball off them; but it does not matter where you win the ball it’s that you are positive when you get it. The team shape was spot on, but individually they had to dig deep against some of the best players in the world”.
City finished the game with 72% of the possession, 22 shots on goal and 16 corners. However, few watching the game will feel that United were not worth their victory. They defended deep, with a rigid back four protected well by the tenacious Fred and physically imposing Scott McTominay. The key to the game, though, was the threat on the counter-attack. The pace provided by the forwards was rapid, and the Man City defenders looked vulnerable every single time United went forward. The attackers were fluid and linked together effectively, and before VAR awarded the clear penalty for Bernardo Silva’s desperate lunge on Rashford inside the area, good chances had already been spurned by Daniel James, Martial, Lingard and Rashford. It was a pleasure to witness such genuine threat and potency having become far too accustomed to mediocre, flat performances this season.
Solskjaer confirmed this was a template for the way he has been trying to mould his team: “You can call it counter-attacking, but that sounds negative. For me, it is quick, attacking, flowing football with the right intent. There is no intention to take it back to the keeper. We have players with pace, quality and skill”. For this huge fixture, in a derby that was pivotal to the hopes of both sides moving forward, it was the perfect approach. To attempt to defend without an attacking outlet is suicide, and to attempt to out-play City would lead to a massacre. City were never comfortable with the pace and dribbling United’s forwards offered. It was crucial to get in front early on, and from there the players visibly gained confidence and belief.
2. They Closed it Out
Getting in front was crucial; managing to stay in front shows progress. No Premier League side has dropped more points from winning positions than Manchester United this season. Having invested a great deal of energy in the first half, there was always going to be an onslaught of City pressure, and it duly came. It made for some tense viewing, and there were several moments of genuine danger, including one spectacular block from Victor Lindelöf, and VAR reviewing handball appeals against Fred and Luke Shaw. The pleasing thing, though, was that despite the youthfulness and relative inexperience of this team, they closed the game out with great maturity.
Maturity is one word for it – gamesmanship would be another. Gamesmanship is defined by the Meriam-Webster dictionary as ‘the art or practice of winning games by questionable expedients without actually violating the rules’. United maintained some threat as the game progressed, but it lessened as you might expect. This team, and this manager, are generally regarded as too ‘nice’ and fragile. In the past, they have folded when faced with aggression and consistent pressure. They remained stubborn and resolute in the second period of this game. They took their time at every stoppage in play, committed clever fouls in good areas of the pitch, and conducted the basics of running down the clock including keeping it in the corner in the final stages. De Gea was booked for time wasting, players took their time getting up after challenges, and City were prevented from taking quick re-starts. Perhaps some of Mourinho’s coaching wasn’t wasted on this group. Essentially, they were reading from the Manchester City playbook. One atrocious kick on Raheem Sterling from Andreas Pereira stepped over the mark and could have been punished with a red; but in general, the players were experts at frustrating their opponents.
Defensively, they were fully committed, intensely concentrated, and well organised. There is now a more settled feel to the team selection, and it is apparently starting to pay dividends. De Gea looks confident again, Maguire and Lindelöf is the established centre back partnership, and Fred and McTominay dovetail well in midfield. Luke Shaw had a solid game, although still lacked the athleticism to offer much threat going forward. That leads us to Aaron Wan Bissaka…
3. Bissaka is Number Wan
Aaron Wan Bissaka was imperious on Saturday, and perhaps the biggest compliment you could pay him is that it came as no surprise. At just 22 years of age, you could rightly expect him to take some time to adapt and settle under the Old Trafford microscope. He has been a revelation at Manchester United, and has provided a long-term solution for a position that had been a significant weakness. Former Arsenal defender Martin Keown, speaking on the BBC’s Match of the Day program, stated “He’s a magnificent defender, simply the best one-against-one defender in the Premier League”. Against City, his performance breaks down as: 9 completed tackles; 7 clearances; 100% successful take-ons; 4 blocked crosses; 3 blocks; 2 interceptions; and amazingly just one foul. Raheem Sterling didn’t manage a single shot on target and was resolutely marshalled by Wan-Bissaka all game.
Wan Bissaka was the best defender on the pitch, in what has become in modern football an absolutely crucial position. He also offers the athleticism to get forward and add width and pace to the attacks. His attacking play requires more work and his delivery can be sporadic, but he has all the attributes to be the very best in the division. Despite his £50 million price tag, he already looks to be a magnificent purchase. ‘The Spider’ was the standout performer at the back, and Sterling will not be looking forward to his next encounter against him.
It is a positive to have Luke Shaw back in the starting line-up, but the contrast with Wan Bissaka is stark. With fitness work, Shaw can offer some dynamism on the left-hand side, but he is always a worry in terms of injuries as well as application. He doesn’t offer the same consistency or defensive reliability that his younger colleague already has in abundance.
4. Daniel James has announced himself at the highest level
It goes without saying that Marcus Rashford in currently in inspired form and rightly received the man of the match award for this fixture. He was a constant threat and should have scored more than the penalty which he won. A less-heralded player, though, is the 22-year-old Welshman Daniel James. Having enjoyed scoring three goals in his first four appearances, his strike rate has slowed down, but his raw pace seems to only get faster as he beds into this team. He has been a constant bright spark in what has been a largely bleak start to the season and plays with an honest endeavour and relentless energy. For performances such as this one, with space to run in behind a high defensive line, there are few players more suited than the £15 million signing from Swansea.
Solskjaer has spoken about how “We have had to reshape the squad, change the culture, change the way we want to play”. Daniel James is the embodiment of this. He has been consistent in his approach, made several crucial assists – including an assist for Martial in this encounter – and has played in every league game this season. He has exceeded expectations as a largely overlooked signing from the Championship, and among his many qualities he offers a relentless work rate. This club have become far too accustomed to foreign imports who have undoubted ability or potential, but lack the humility or the endeavour to succeed in Manchester. James is the antithesis of this. He gives the impression that he is delighted to be at the club and shows a genuine passion and focus towards the team. He has quickly become an integral member of the starting side.
The fact he is one of the most-fouled players in the division is an illustration of how defenders struggle to cope with him. This was a game tailor made for him. Martial also reminded us of his ability to lead the line, and rotate positions with Lingard and Rashford. Jesse Lingard, having been off-colour for a long spell, performed well in the 10 role, and proved that he is a viable option when playing in this way. He is not a traditional creative ‘10’ who will be able to break down a stubborn defence; but in terms of playing at speed in the transition, offering dangerous third man runs and running with the ball, he is a genuine option. He is another player who offers total commitment and immense work rate, and this derby victory clearly meant a lot to him.
5. Manchester United have an excellent record against the ‘Big Six’
The sample size is now large enough to say that Solskjaer enjoys these high-pressure encounters against the teams at the top of the division. They remain unbeaten against Liverpool, Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs, and Leicester can also be added to that list. The reasons for this are clear: they are all expansive, attacking sides. This feeds into the way Solskjaer likes to play, and he expertly knows how to set his sides up. They defend well, in a compact and disciplined form, and hit at speed on the break with often devastating effect.
The difficulty for a long time has been against the lesser ranked teams. The struggle has been breaking down teams who are more than happy to concede the initiative to United, and they have looked hopelessly lost and uninspired against the likes of Crystal Palace, West Ham, Bournemouth and Newcastle, to name just a few. These games represent where the biggest strides forward must be made.
The next league game is against a re-invigorated Everton. It is highly unlikely that the Merseysiders will look to play with a high defensive line and dictate the proceedings, and they will pose an entirely different challenge to this Manchester City side. However, confidence is so crucial to this United side. There have been many false dawns over the past six or seven seasons, where significant victories have been followed up with a return to the status quo. The games to come will be different tactically, but the same level of intensity and focus must be maintained, along with the self-belief gained from these two superb performances. The players were rightly keen to take the adulation from their tremendous travelling support on Saturday, but it must not end there. A genuine desire to achieve consistency in each and every game must be the focus. These results have provided a perfect springboard, but the games over the festive season are all equally pivotal.