A tumultuous 2018 for Manchester United comes to a close on Sunday against Bournemouth. The Reds hope to keep up their great start under caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and draw closer to that coveted top four spot.
On Boxing Day, United expertly weathered the emotions of Ole’s much-anticipated return to Old Trafford — and a surprisingly tough Huddersfield Town squad — to run out 3-1 winners. That scoreline probably flattered the hosts, but chalk it up as another improved performance and momentum-building result.
Anthony Martial missed out through illness, though Solskjaer hopes to have his star winger back for Bournemouth’s visit this weekend. Juan Mata ably filled in for the Frenchman, shifting Jesse Lingard to the left and moving Paul Pogba up into a more advanced #10 role.
Solskjaer made two other changes to the side that brushed aside Cardiff City at the weekend. Diogo Dalot replaced Ashley Young at right back and Fred started in midfield. Both summer signings had their moments, but were withdrawn shortly after the break with Huddersfield pressing the advantage.
Thankfully, the toothless Terriers struggled to turn United’s defensive breakdowns into meaningful chances. The Reds, on the other hand, were ruthless. Nemanja Matić pounced on a saved Victor Lindelöf header to open the scoring in the 28th minute. It’s been a difficult season for Matić, so hopefully this goal will kickstart a strong second half.
After halftime, United clung to a 1-0 lead as Huddersfield pushed forward with all guns blazing. Solskjaer countered with a double substitution, bringing on Young and Ander Herrera for Dalot and Fred. The Brazilian midfielder started the match strongly, but again showed how his presence can disrupt his team’s defense.
Solskjaer’s substitutions worked a treat as United seized back control of the match. Pogba put the game away with a second-half brace, continuing his sensational renaissance under the new manager.
But some things never change. United allowed a late goal and missed out on another clean sheet. Afterwards, Solskjaer pointed out that his side has now conceded twice from set pieces in as many games and vowed to get that defensive frailty sorted out.
That being said, Boxing Day was another hugely encouraging result for Manchester United. “You need momentum,” Solskjaer told Match of the Day after the win. “The next two games will be massive for us. Coming into these games with confidence is great.”
Even better than confidence is a healthy squad. Several of United’s missing regulars — including a certain high-priced Chilean — could be in line for a return. “[Alexis Sánchez] is touch and go for Bournemouth, but probably involved against Newcastle,” Ole explained. Everyone’s anxiously waiting to see if Solskjaer can coax better performances out of the mercurial Alexis.
“Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sánchez, and Anthony Martial could all be back for the next game,” he continued. “Not a bad front three to come in and knock on the door. It will be great to get them back. Maybe we’ll change the front three.”
These two sides met last month at the Vitality Stadium in Bournemouth, which ranked among United’s most impressive performances of the season to that point. Or, at least the second half did. A last-gasp Marcus Rashford winner secured all three points against a very tough foe.
Much has changed, though, since that November match. That late loss to United put the skids on Bournemouth’s strong start to the season and Eddie Howe’s outfit hasn’t looked the same since. They enter Sunday’s match losers of eight in ten and find themselves all the way down at 11th in the Premier League table.
That includes Boxing Day’s 5-0 thrashing at the hands — or feet — of Tottenham Hotspur. Spurs totally outclassed Bournemouth in every area, but the Cherries will mostly rue the loss of club captain Simon Francis to a serious injury. There’s not much margin for error at Bournemouth these days, so losing their star defender will be a big problem.
“It doesn’t look good,” Eddie Howe admitted. “[Francis] has gone for a scan, so we’ll know when we get the results. I don’t know what to say on it — it’s hugely disappointing for someone who has been so crucial for the football club.”
There’s little time for Bournemouth to arrest their slide during the Christmas period. “It’s difficult because we have games so quickly,” Howe said. “We’re disappointed. We all expect better and the players feel the same. We can't dwell on this, but we have to learn our lessons. We can’t go too deep — the next one will come quickly, so let’s focus on that. It’s a key stage of the season.”
In many ways, Sunday brings the first real challenge of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United tenure. The Reds easily dispatched relegation fodder in his first two matches, but now face a solid Premier League team, albeit one that’s stuck in a rough patch. Manchester United are up to 6th — with Arsenal and Chelsea wobbling just above — and can end the year in perfect fashion with another win this weekend.