Chaotic derby meeting can offer few surprises with Man Utd still stuck in familiar Solskjaer cycle

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·6-min read
Chaotic derby meeting can offer few surprises with Man Utd still stuck in familiar Solskjaer cycle
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At this point, there is no result in Saturday’s Manchester derby that would come as a surprise.

That is where we are with Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – which only supports the argument that he has lost control of the job.

It would be just like the Norwegian to come up with the type of form and logic-defying victory at Old Trafford that would be enough to put just enough doubt in the mind of Joel Glazer to allow the drift at United to go on even longer. A result that would move them level on points with Manchester City, demonstrate their ability to live with the best and make a mockery of the crisis that engulfed Solskjaer less than a fortnight ago.

No one could complain about a draw against the Premier League champions either – no matter how it came – and the United manager’s ability to pull off results against the highest level of opposition cannot be discounted going into this contest.

At the same time, it is a match that will spark dread and fear into the minds of any United supporter – particularly on the back of that 5-0 humbling at the hands of Liverpool.

City are every bit as capable of tearing their cross-town rivals apart – especially if Solskjaer deploys such naive tactics as he did when trying to go toe-to-toe with Jurgen Klopp.

His success in these types of games has been primarily due to his acceptance that he does not have the tools to stand up and trade blows with the best.

That has largely been due to the inferior players at his disposal. The issue now – and one that was so brutally exposed by Liverpool – is that he does have the talent in his United squad to compare with the clubs expected to be challenging for the title this season.

That brings with it an expectation that he has not yet faced as United manager.

For the first time since taking on the job, he faced Liverpool last month with the onus on him to make a statement. The type of counter-attacking win that has been his trademark over the past three years would have raised fresh scrutiny over the direction in which he is taking the club.

United want to be a pro-active team – not a reactive one.

Sitting deep and hitting on the break is all good and well to get the job done. But the success of City and Liverpool under Pep Guardiola and Klopp has been about dominating the opposition and overwhelming them in every department.

The manager of Manchester United is obliged to do likewise if they are to return to the summit of English football.

It is a big reason why Jose Mourinho failed. His counter-attacking brand of football produced trophies and got them to second. But they were a long way off City and then overtaken by Liverpool.

It is still up for debate whether that style can work again in this country – certainly in the age of Guardiola and Klopp – but the sense is that it just will not do for a club of United’s heritage.

Should Chelsea triumph this season, they would be the most pragmatic of champions in recent times, but even if the foundations of Thomas Tuchel’s success are grounded on a steely defence, his teams still dominate opponents in terms of possession.

United, under Solskjaer, are still at their most effective when passive. It is why they have so often been caught out by teams who are also happy to sit deep – and why they looked so shambolic when suddenly trying to switch those tactics against Liverpool.

Minds were scrambled all over the pitch that day and Liverpool ruthlessly exploited their total lack of organisation.

While they hunted in packs in last week’s win against Tottenham, Solskjaer’s selection of a three-man central defence and two holding midfielders made it clear that security at the back was his primary concern after the capitulation against Liverpool.

So how does he play it against City?

That Liverpool result and the ongoing uncertainty over his position means he enters this type of game in the role he is most accustomed to since taking over at United – as the overwhelming underdog.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

No one is expecting his chastened team to try to control the play – even at home. Rather he will be expected to revert to type and the formula that has proved remarkably effective against Guardiola, who has so often played right into Solskjaer’s hands by taking risks and leaving open spaces for United to expose with their array of fast forwards.

That is why it would be no surprise to Solskjaer claim a fifth win in nine games against Guardiola – although three of those have been at the Etihad.

But the very fact that we are three years into his reign, having spent well over £300million on a squad of his own design, and still seeing no discernible improvement on his footballing vision, is damning.

This might as well be Paris St-Germain away in 2019 when he was still interim manager.

For all the emotion of that unforgettable night that ultimately secured him the job, it was a seat-of-your-pants type performance that offered little by way of instruction of what Solskjaer’s master plan was.

Instead, it was the type of chaos that has provided the script to his reign at large, which has been even more pronounced in the opening months of this campaign - leading right up to Cristiano Ronaldo’s injury-time equaliser against Atalanta in midweek.

It is that type of chaos that makes Saturday’s Derby so compelling and so impossible to call.

Should City demonstrate their superiority, it could get very ugly - especially leading into the void if an international break.

Victory would continue the pattern of Solskjaer’s entire reign – lurching from crisis to promise and ultimately stasis in terms of their ambition to be serious title contenders.

In reality, the result on Saturday should have no bearing on his position, win, lose or draw.

United’s powerbrokers need to ask themselves just one question: Is this the man who will win them their next Premier League title?

The answer to that does not come from a 5-0 defeat to Liverpool or whatever the outcome against City.

It comes from a body of work over the past three years.

Solskjaer has done a fine job in moulding a squad and restoring a sense of balance to a club that made too many decisions on the hoof post-Sir Alex Ferguson.

But it is entirely possible to accept that fact, while also determining that romantic notions of a legendary player doing likewise from the dugout are bordering on fantasy.

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