In a week described by many as defining for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Manchester United secured two of the biggest victories of the Norwegian’s tenure.
Defeating Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola in, what Solskjaer reminds us, the space of just three days is a feat that cannot be underestimated given what had gone before.
United had picked up just four wins in fourteen games, amassing eighteen points and embarrassingly not looking out of place in mid table after performances that justified their lowly position in the league.
Solskjaer’s unexpected consecutive triumphs over Spurs at Old Trafford and Man City at the Etihad have at least given United an ounce of credibility in the league table, now sitting fifth five points off the top four.
However, impressive results against the so called ‘bigger teams’ should not mask the salient issue that troubles United under Solskjaer; the failure to put away the ‘lesser teams’.
The Reds have taken points off Liverpool, City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham this season, which Solskjaer undoubtedly deserves credit for.
But what about Newcastle? West Ham? Bournemouth? Teams on paper United should be sweeping aside are far too often getting the better of the Reds. These defeats have not been undeserved either, each team flustering and outthinking Solskjaer’s men.
Solskjaer’s style of play is what makes United far more dangerous against the top teams. The prime example is at the Eithad Stadium, the home of the champions on Saturday.
Against a Guardiola side so comfortable in possession, the Reds set up to lure City in before instantly hitting the counter-attack at pace. United had just 28% of possession and the plan worked to perfection. In Daniel James, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, Solskjaer has the assets he needs to expose teams on the counter.
It’s against the teams lower down in the table, where United are afforded more of the possession where the problems are most apparent.
United’s next four league games are against Everton, Newcastle, Watford and Burnley. In a strange way, these games actually hold more significance than the two previous.
These fixtures all fall into the ‘winnable games’ category, and Solskjaer must prove he is not a one-dimensional manager who can only deliver counter-attacking tactics. Without winning these games, no progress is being shown and the pressure on the United manager would return.
In fairness, United’s lack of creativity in midfield makes it difficult to break deep-lying defences down, but this should not inhibit them entirely.
Solskjaer still has a number of talented attacking players at his disposal, and Paul Pogba, United’s most creative midfielder, is to return soon. There can be little excuse for United continuing to drop points against sides that should be inferior in quality.
Momentum needs to be continued from two fantastic victories; fixtures are now in Solskjaer’s favour leading up to Christmas and the Norwegian must prove he has the tactical knowhow to not just get results in the big games.