Manchester United were on a resurgent run following the appointment of caretaker manager, club legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and fresh off of a dominant win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup. Liverpool, challenging for the Premier League title for the first time in 5 seasons, came in with a game in hand in the race against Manchester City at the top of the table.
Old Trafford was in full voice, and the stands were littered with legends of the game. United and their hated rivals took the pitch for one of the most anticipated matches since the restoration of hope at the club under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The stage was set for a remarkable game.
Then, disaster struck.
Ander Herrera and Juan Mata both limped off with early injuries in the first half hour of the match, and Jesse Lingard, who replaced Mata, re-injured the hamstring injury he was still recovering from just before the break. The unbelievable was unfolding. Solskjaer was forced to replace the man he had just sent on, using all 3 substitutions before half time and stranding a clearly hurt Marcus Rashford to carry on for the rest of the match with a knock of his own. It was the 4th substitution of the 1st half as Jurgen Klopp was also forced to use a sub of his own to replace an injured Roberto Firmino.
Including Nemanja Matić’s training injury the day before the match, the Red Devils lost 5 first team players to the injury report in the span of just 2 days, in a match week where 3 Premier League games are scheduled over 7 days. Anthony Martial also remains in doubt after failing to make the squad on Sunday. How Solskjaer manages the team over the next few weeks could be an even bigger test than digging the Reds out of their 6th place hole in December. There are some tricky league fixtures ahead, as well as the second leg of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 at Paris Saint-Germain and the FA Cup quarterfinal tie at Wolverhampton Wanderers. Ole faces tough decisions replenishing squad depth for a tight schedule, and he’s called up James Garner, Angel Gomes, and Tahith Chong to the first team for the trip to Crystal Palace on Wednesday.
Ole calling on youth to fill in the gaps in the first team depth chart is certainly based on necessity, but he’s been speaking highly of the youth team since his arrival in December. Chong and Gomes have put in a bit of time training and occasionally playing for the first team over the last couple of seasons, but Garner would be making his debut if he appears in the next few games. Solskjaer is a disciple of Sir Alex Ferguson, who placed great confidence in his younger players throughout his managerial career. The Norwegian legend has trusted the “United Way” as he knows it, and doesn’t look like he’ll fold now.
With so many key players in doubt and inexperienced, but confident, youth as replacements, Solskjaer is facing his toughest test yet as United manager. Arsenal’s win on Sunday means that they’re back in 4th after briefly falling behind in the table. United will have an opportunity to leapfrog Arsenal if they win their matches against Crystal Palace and Southampton this week, but a visit to North London is sandwiched between the aforementioned Champions League and FA cup matches, which are also away from home. Crystal Palace and Southampton are not exactly walk-throughs either. These are two opponents who held them to draws earlier in the season, and Palace is coming off of an impressive weekend when they throttled Leicester City 4-1 at the King Power. And it will only get tougher from there.
These are United’s fixtures over the span of just 2 and a half weeks:
2/27- (A) Crystal Palace
3/2- (H) Southampton
3/6- (A) Paris Saint-Germain
3/10- (A) Arsenal
3/16- (A) Wolverhampton Wanderers
The next several games are crucial to United achieving their goals this season, and even beyond this run difficult fixtures await in the Premier League and potential next rounds of the cup. Silverware is always sought after at Manchester United, and a place in the Champions League next season will be critical for United’s ambitions in their rebuilding process.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may only be a caretaker manager, but he’s gunning for the full time position. His time in charge has been impressive already, but United’s squad has been hit the hardest at a time when a lot is at stake. The pressure really is on for Solskjaer as he manages a shorthanded squad of out of favor subs, reservists, and youth players into a really difficult run of games.