How to explain Manchester United’s peculiar habit of beating the very best but tripping up against those they are expected to beat? It is a clear pattern which dates back almost a year now, throughout Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tenure as both caretaker and permanent manager, and it was demonstrated once again in Saturday’s remarkable Manchester derby win at the Etihad.
Solskjaer’s record against other members of the ‘top seven’ - City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and Leicester City - was already excellent before Saturday. Now, across all competitions, it reads won nine, drawn four and lost only two. Only Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola would see room for improvement in those figures.
The fact that United have largely been second-best in those 14 games, averaging only 41 per cent possession, makes the record all the more impressive. And that is without considering the away-goals win over Paris Saint-Germain in March. Like at the Etihad this weekend, United won that game with only 28 per cent of the ball and it effectively ensured Solskjaer would be the fourth man to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson.
But compare that record to how they have fared against the Premier League’s ‘other 13’, in domestic cup competitions and against the likes of AZ Alkmaar and Astana in European competition. These games have largely seen United start as favourites but they have only won half of them, with disappointing stalemates against Rochdale and Huddersfield and memorable defeats to Cardiff, Crystal Palace and Newcastle.
United have often dominated the balance of play in these games, averaging 59% possession, yet the points and wins have not always been forthcoming. But Solskjaer believes he knows why. “It's consistency and just being better at taking care of our chances,” he said after the finest win of his permanent tenure to date.
“We had chances in every single game. There are so many games I could go through that we should have won. We know that we have to get better results against teams that drop deeper. We'll improve on that.”
Could it also be that it’s all in their heads? Does playing without the expectation of all three points liberate his players? “If it’s a mental thing, then we can sort it out,” Solskjaer insisted. “We’ll work with the mentality of the boys. For me, it’s been very much about margins in those games. Some freak results that we can’t control. But if you look behind the results I’m not as negative as you are.
“I’m not so worried, so concerned. If the boys are then telling me they can’t get up for these games – then we’ve got a problem. Then I’ve really got to work with them because, when I played, that’s how we won the league. We never gave points away against the lesser teams, the not-so-good teams. The Premier League is difficult – if you don’t have that mentality you won’t get results. I’ll work on the mentality.”
It is a plausible explanation and cannot be easily disproved. Solskjaer has often questioned the “desire” of his players in recent weeks, only to then distance himself from that and focus more k. a lack of belief. He is working with one of the youngest squads in the top flight - as he is regularly at pains to remind us - and there is a sense that a crop of talented but inexperienced United players sometimes struggle with the weight of expectation placed on their shoulders by history.
But if there is an explanation for United’s strange form, it more likely lies in Solskjaer’s style of play. United were devastating on the counter-attack on Saturday, brilliantly executing the style and approach they have spent the best part of a year perfecting. It helped that they found themselves up against a side in City that has looked increasingly vulnerable to fast, direct play over the last few months. They gave up space again this weekend and United exploited it.
When that space is not there to run into, when United are forced to create openings themselves through patient yet incisive possession play, they struggle. Their thrilling but rather rudimentary approach falls short. United’s next four games come against Everton, Watford, Newcastle and Burnley - four sides that have had their own struggles of late and will happily invite pressure from United before countering.
Solskjaer has proved an ability to win the hard way, but his long-term future will ultimately depend on taking that next step and picking up so-called ‘easier’ points.