During his playing days, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer became famous for being a “super-sub,” someone who could come off the bench and change a game to devastating effect. In truth, he was three elite footballers in one. Not only was he as decisive a substitute as the sport has seen, he was also good enough to play long stretches of his career as both a starting striker and a playmaker from the right flank.
It is no surprise, then, that Manchester United’s startling improvement since his arrival as caretaker manager has chiefly been in attack, including the three roles he once assumed with the greatest distinction. United’s forwards have been the main beneficiaries of Solskjaer’s insistence on a much higher work-rate, putting intense pressure on the ball, and on his desire to push the play up the field wherever possible. Those collective entreaties from the supporters at Old Trafford to “attack, attack, attack” are finally being answered.
Some will observe that United’s five successive victories — four in the Premier League and one in the FA Cup third round — have come against vastly inferior opposition: Cardiff, Huddersfield, Bournemouth, Newcastle and Reading. Yet those people must also note that the manner in which United have swept these teams aside, scoring 16 goals and conceding three, is what they should expect from a top side.
It is to Solskjaer’s credit that United instantly look like they could finish inside the top four come the end of the season. The Norwegian has emphasised that he’s interested in much more than United’s attack — he is all too aware that the defence is in need of rapid and significant enforcement — but it is in the forward areas that his squad has the greatest natural ability.
One of the notable developments has been the soaring form of Marcus Rashford. The England international is the type of footballer his country has not seen in some time; he has the physical presence to play through the middle as a lone striker, yet he also has the acceleration and the superb footwork of an excellent winger. That blend of attributes — which is shared, to some degree, by Anthony Martial — should long have made him one of the Premier League’s most consistently dangerous forwards. After a strong start to his career at Old Trafford under Louis van Gaal, Rashford again looks as if he could become that player.
Solskjaer, like Jose Mourinho, trusts Rashford’s delivery from dead-ball situations but the crucial difference is that he has greater faith in the improvement of his finishing. Encouraged by Solskjaer to be calmer in front of goal, Rashford promptly responded, providing the decisive second goal in an away win at St James’ Park. All of a sudden, the question is again just how good Rashford can become.
More broadly, the team’s movement off the ball is dynamic and purposeful. Even Martial, one of the few United forwards who still looked sharp under Mourinho, is much better as part of a cohesive attacking unit. Romelu Lukaku, who returned from injury under Solskjaer on the bench before starting the FA Cup win over Reading, appears refreshed. Perhaps that is due, in part, to the genuine competition for starting places now that the team is in form. But the main factor has been Solskjaer’s forensic dissection of Lukaku’s game, and the manner in which he and the team should play to best exploit his talents.
Solskjaer has recalled the days of Sir Alex Ferguson’s treble-winning team, that 1998-99 side when United could call upon four first-class strikers — Solskjaer himself, Teddy Sheringham, Dwight Yorke and Andrew Cole — for two places. In his opinion, this embarrassment of attacking riches is a good problem to have. We can tentatively expect him to rotate his forwards a great deal in the months to come, as much to avoid complacency within his squad as to give his opponents ever-changing tactical challenges.
Yet the most crucial element in this rejuvenated United side must be the resurgence of Paul Pogba. Under the new manager, he has scored four times and provided three assists. Pogba’s energy level, especially when he loses the ball, has also improved.
The France midfielder suddenly has the movement ahead of him that allows him to play to something near his best. He’s also making better decisions when in possession and getting into the final third with regularity. This is something United coach Michael Carrick encouraged during last season’s half-time team-talk away at Manchester City, telling Pogba that he would be unstoppable if he timed his runs into the area. At that point, City were leading by two goals to nil; after the break, Pogba scored twice in a matter of minutes, leading United to a remarkable win.
Solskjaer has clearly urged Pogba to play with a similar freedom, in a manner reminiscent of Steven Gerrard under Rafa Benitez at Liverpool; then, as with Pogba now, Gerrard roamed forward at will, secure in the knowledge that two more defensively minded midfielders were patrolling the gaps behind him. As a result, Gerrard performed with the greatest distinction, and in the months ahead Solskjaer will rightly expect the same of Pogba.
Of course, the larger questions still remain — including whether Solskjaer’s team can dismantle the game’s very best defences. We’ll get our first answer when Manchester United travel to Tottenham on Sunday. Yet it is a testament of Solskjaer’s remarkably quick progress that the upcoming February Champions League round-of-16 tie against Paris Saint-Germain, which under Mourinho looked overwhelmingly as if it would end in defeat, seems winnable.
The future may not yet be Manchester red, but it is certainly bright.