Man United conundrum

Wednesday, January 20th, 2021 00:00 |
Edinson Cavani.

London,  Tuesday

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has learned plenty since being thrust into the Manchester United hotseat a little over two years ago, but perhaps his most important lesson came against Tottenham last October.

Leading 1-0 inside two minutes at Old Trafford, United quickly found themselves 2-1 down. Then it was 3-1, then 4-1, then 5-1 and, finally, six.

There was a mitigating factor on that chastening afternoon, however, with Anthony Martial sent off in the 28th minute for slapping Erik Lamela. Spurs went on to score four of their goals against United’s 10 men.

It would have been easy to blame his side’s humiliating capitulation on Martial’s moment of madness, but Solskjaer seems to have taken more from his side’s display than anyone could have anticipated.

In four Premier League games against their traditional Big Six rivals since, United have conceded just once - a penalty against Arsenal - and kept three clean sheets, the latest of which came against Liverpool on Sunday. 

While suffering defeat at home to a talented Spurs side led by pumped-up former United boss Jose Mourinho was understandable with 10 men, the openness with which his side continued to play - and the defensive mistakes they made - were unacceptable to Solskjaer.

Avoiding another embarrassment like that and, more importantly, just staying in the game has taken on a far greater importance for Solskjaer in the wake of that result.

Three weeks after the Tottenham debacle, United battled to a 0-0 draw at home to Chelsea, who at the time were in the middle of what would end up being a 17-game unbeaten run.

A week after that, there was a 1-0 defeat by Arsenal at Old Trafford, although the Gunners failed to find a breakthrough in open play and needed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s penalty to seal a narrow win at Old Trafford.

In December, Solskjaer’s side ground out another draw against a potential title rival as they nullified noisy neighbours City in another 0-0 at home.

And it was the same story on Sunday at Anfield, with Harry Maguire and Co keeping out the champions with relative ease to earn another clean sheet and what could prove to be an important point.

It is no coincidence that United have played more cautiously and defended deeper in games against teams they expect to be battling with for either the title - or at least a Champions League spot - come the end of the season.

In contrast to those clean sheets against City and Co are the goals they have conceded to teams towards the wrong end of the table since the defeat by Spurs.

Rock-bottom Sheffield United and 12th-placed Leeds both managed to score twice against the Red Devils in December, while Newcastle, West Ham, Aston Villa and Everton have also found the back of the net during defeats by United. 

This pattern encapsulates how United have generally approached the big - and not-so-big - games since Harry Kane and Spurs ran riot at Old Trafford.

But if Solskjaer wants to take his side to the next level, clean sheets alone may not be enough in the biggest of games.     - Daily Mail

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