There have been positive results obtained against Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham this season but City on Saturday are a bigger threat
It was perhaps the game that convinced Ed Woodward to give Ole Gunnar Solskjaer the manager’s job permanently. It had high drama, vim and resilience. United had pulled off not just a late comeback, but a devilishly hard one too.
There was the high press from the off, there were youngsters thrown in to sink or swim, and there were nerves of steel from Marcus Rashford at the death. Famous qualities of the club were recalled and embraced.
The form and the momentum, however, dramatically trailed off from there. The sheer mental and physical exertion caught up with the players. The injury list was already growing and has not abated. And perhaps only now – about nine months later – do they appear to be gaining the necessary stamina for modern Premier League football.
There have been suggestions that once players were informed they would not be needed for the following season, they turned down the effort out of indifference, disappointment, or simple human nature. Whatever the reasons, the run of results that secured Solskjaer the permanent job was quickly forgotten.
But there have been moments of real success since then, and a few against the rest of the traditional top six. For that, Solskjaer deserves credit.
The opening game of the season saw United destroy Chelsea. Frank Lampard can cite plenty in mitigation. He is inexperienced, and his players and the fans were unsure just what the future held for them at the start of the campaign. But they came with enthusiasm and looked for the three points. That was probably their downfall. With Paul Pogba incisive, and a pacey attack ahead of him, United were able to locate the gaps across and behind the Chelsea defence.
United have competed well against the other big teams throughout the season. There were draws against Arsenal and Liverpool, a Carabao Cup win against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge – when the home side were much more confident in their own abilities, no less. They have performed in those games better than expectation.
Against Tottenham on Wednesday night, there was as much a sense of foreboding as any other emotion. Jose Mourinho brought a Spurs side reinvigorated, and with the youthful energy that United fans had coveted during Mauricio Pochettino’s time in charge. United were coming off the back of dismal results against Sheffield United, Astana and Aston Villa. But they delivered the goods.
With an improved performance from the defence, Fred and Scott McTominay producing some of their best work, and Marcus Rashford continuing to threaten, there was enough to exploit the weaknesses that Spurs couldn’t hide. Solskjaer kept his record intact, unbeaten against the biggest sides in the league. Add into the mix that United are also one of the few teams to have beaten Leicester City, keeping a clean sheet as well.
When United are under pressure from a side that knows how to attack, they are given the chance to play to their strengths. Teams that come for the win will press regularly and commit men forward to make the most of their talents. That inevitably leaves space in behind the defence and puts defenders further away from their natural defensive positions.
It also compresses the space that United’s midfielders have to cover, and by aiming passes into space for extremely quick forwards like Daniel James, it asks less of their accuracy, which is key in Pogba’s absence. Whether all this works on Saturday evening at the Etihad, however, is another matter.
While it is entirely possible that United’s forwards continue to improve, and that City’s defensive weakness gifts them some chances, there are qualities within Pep Guardiola’s team which mean that it could be less straightforward. There will be space to attack, and pressure to absorb, but there is more. United’s defence might have improved, but they will be vulnerable to pressure from City’s suffocating approach.
The biggest threat City might pose in terms of cutting off United’s own danger is perhaps Guardiola’s reliance on the tactical foul. His players are adept at clipping heels, pulling shirts and outright hacks, timed to minimise censure because they often occur far from goal. Solskaer’s greatest weapon – the counter – will undoubtedly be blunted. United’s players are less fluid when they are required to take their time, retain possession and break down an opponent at walking speed.
Of course, a win remains possible. This United side has its faults. Many of them. But there is a smattering of excellence here and there and the players do not currently want for self-belief. Going into this game, Solskjaer can probably be assured that his job is not in danger for now whatever the result, and that did not look to be the case before the week started.