It was a rather fun-filled evening at The Emirates, as Manchester United marched into North London to take on Arsenal in the 4th round of the FA Cup. After a nervy half hour without a solid shot from either side, United struck first, then second before Arsenal could cut the deficit by half. The Red Devils eventually widened their lead with a third goal inside the final 10 minutes, ultimately preventing the Gunners from advancing to the next round with a 3-1 defeat. While the chances of winning a trophy looked slim-to-none before the festive fixtures, this convincing win against Unai Emery’s men might be the turning point in adding to the extensive hardware collection at Old Trafford.
The first half of the 2018/2019 domestic campaign was met with considerable disappointment. The December dismissal of manager José Mourinho ushered in a temporary term for blue-eyed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who was left to inherit the mess created by his predecessor. Well, the Norwegian has made use of his time as caretaker, bringing in a now record eight wins in eight matches in charge. With each victory, and subsequent advancement to the next round or ascension into top-four territory, something is becoming apparent: Manchester United might add to their trophy haul at the culmination of this season after all.
Earlier this week, Ole reflected on his side’s potential to come away with silverware this year. Considering he’s still auditioning for the role of permanent manager, the 45-year-old touted the importance of delivering a solid performance start to finish.
"It's a chance for a trophy, so we're going to go for this" #MUFC caretaker boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on tonight's #FACup fourth-round trip to Arsenal.— BBC RM Sport (@BBCRMsport) January 25, 2019
Live on @BBCOne pic.twitter.com/X6rkPcSr41
Under the Ole regime, United have now faced two serious opponents, and have come away triumphant. Sure, their biggest test is to come in a few weeks when Paris Saint Germain cruise into town, and the defense faces arguably their toughest challenge since his promotion, but the way he is leading this team to believe silverware is a real possibility is remarkable.
Perhaps a top-four finish was the goal, and Ed Woodward could have justified extending Ole’s contract to reflect that sole accomplishment. However, for an interim manager to assume the reins of the most storied club in football, who as of late have fallen on hard times, only to bring them a trophy that probably few were expecting after the nightmare that was the “Special One,” is a feat many would be delighted to witness. Added bonus: he grabs one before Unai Emery or (hopefully) Jurgen Klopp!
The one concern that may plague United until the summer transfer window is the porous defense, which Arsenal rightfully exposed last night. Just as the opening half was coming to a close, Alex Iwobi passed to Aaron Ramsey on the left, and he jogged down to the touchline before firing a short cross that landed beautifully in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s reach to tap into an open net. There was nothing anyone on United’s back four could do, except watch the Frenchman celebrate having scored on his FA Cup debut.
In spite of that, there was real improvement from Ole’s men from the last time they battled a Big Six side. One of his greatest accomplishments since succeeding Mourinho remains his ability to utilize substitutes in a manner Mou could never pull off. Recognizing Emery had instructed his side to apply pressure on the offense, Ole followed suit and substituted the goal scorer Alexis Sánchez and the eventual Man of the Match Romelu Lukaku in favor of the attacking duo Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. This would prove to be a smart decision, as Martial solidified the Red Devils’ victory by capitalizing on a deflection error by keeper Petr Cech.
There is something quite Fergie-like about the turnaround in United’s form. Counterattacks are what separated them from their closest rivals in the past, and under Ole each match there has been a standout example of the impact his tactics have had on this club. That could be attributed to him playing for the best manager in the Premier League era, of course. However, there’s thoughtfulness behind his strategy as well. In the Tottenham match, Pogba endured much of the defensive responsibilities. That wasn’t much of an issue, but eventually it superseded his offensive duties. Time and time again last night the French international appeared when necessary on both sides to gather the second ball and ignite a fierce counterattack. While he doesn’t always have to win tackles and intercept passes, Pogba’s positioning is important in leading the transition into attack.
Solskjaer has developed about as perfect of a Manchester United squad fans could ask for in the last month, and his services will hopefully be rewarded with a trophy and furthermore a promotion into the permanent role. While everyone waits with bated breath to see what comes first, the fanbase can take solace in knowing that as he closes his first full month in charge, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s impact on the roster shall never be forgotten.