The cameras were ubiquitous but not rolling, so Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could afford a chuckle as he sauntered along the touchline from broadcaster to broadcaster.
He has said before he prefers speaking sans cameras, not that anyone at United has noted that, and then he tilted his head up at the press box attendants in The Hawthorns, peering down like hawks. Solskjaer was tetchier during the Zoom call when he mistook a question about Anthony Martial’s form for a ‘statement’.
Solskjaer was more than just sanguine with United’s draw with West Brom, sharing a jovial chat with Sam Allardyce as they completed their media obligations. He is a manager who always looks on the bright side of life and United had risen to second and extended their unbeaten Premier League away run to 18 games. He clarified that meant ‘nothing’, though.
Second would mark progress on last season’s ‘best of the rest’ third. Liverpool’s implosion over the last month has allowed United supporters to derive some additional satisfaction, with some Scousers struggling to cope with the negative coverage more than lockdown-induced cabin fever.
Finishing above Liverpool would be progressive yet Solskjaer does not need reminding of his candid reaction to United’s runners-up status in 2018, one of Jose Mourinho’s ‘greatest achievements’.
“I don’t think any of the Man United supporters, ex-players or players are happy with second place,” Solskjaer said at the time. United were happy with third in July at Leicester, where the first-team coach Kieran McKenna enjoyed a celebratory bottle of beer. He can’t have been the only one.
The context has hardly changed from three years ago. Manchester City are looking ominous against a United that have invested purposefully, albeit not to the level of their state-owned neighbours. Solskjaer has had enviable backing in the transfer market (United have invested £319.7million in transfer fees on his watch) and the competitiveness is not as intense, with Liverpool reeling from injuries and carrying passengers comforted by ending their championship drought.
As suspected, United have lost their nerve amid those narrow and gritty wins before the halfway point. That manner of victory was always unsustainable and they are weaker than City at both ends, irrespective of United’s misleading status as the top-flight’s highest scorers.
The West Brom stalemate confirmed what sussed supporters already knew: United do not possess title-winning centre halves and they are an elite forward short of an attack capable of mounting a credible challenge. They are a quality centre-back, midfielder and forward short of being taken seriously.
Nobody sensible dubbed United genuine challengers this season, for when they were last at the top it was exactly at the halfway point. They have collected six points from their five fixtures since.
This has been such a freakish season United might have overcome their squad deficiencies at a summit with as many flags planted in it as Everest. Everton, Tottenham, Liverpool, United and Leicester have all been up there but normality has resumed since City speared theirs into the ground.
This might be – or might have been – United’s one-shot season. Few teams have benefited from crowdless stadiums more than they have and Liverpool are bound to be reenergised by a packed Anfield in 2021-22. Barring a City capitulation, United’s wait for a title is destined to tick past the eight-year mark and their supporters commemorated Liverpool’s decade without a title with a banner on the Stretford End in 2000.
Solskjaer will have spent longer in post than Mourinho come the start of next season and there is a high possibility he will still be potless. Louis van Gaal paraded the FA Cup in the Wembley press room two days before he was driven out of Carrington for the last time and United ceased backing Mourinho after coming second in the league and cup in 2018.
Mauricio Pochettino and Thomas Tuchel are back in work but that should not safeguard Solskjaer if there is an unsatisfactory conclusion to his second full campaign. It has been progressive – so far – but United are still dependent on Bruno Fernandes producing something out of nothing and fluctuate between carpe diem and cautiousness. Scott McTominay and Fred is too risk-aversive against relegation fodder.
Solskjaer bristled at a query regarding Martial’s form and his answer was hackneyed. Beyond Mason Greenwood, you would think United’s only other attackers are in the youth team bubble but, no, there is Donny van de Beek, Daniel James and Amad – Solskjaer’s signings.
James and Van de Beek cannot be trusted to start against West Brom, so Martial – targeted by racist trolls last month – was back in the firing line and misfired. Cue more racial abuse from hateful lowlifes.
Juan Mata has vanished like Lord Lucan when he is a more dependable lock-picker than Van de Beek, billed as a ‘warrior’ by his agent last week. He looks more like a worrier.
Harry Maguire embarrassed himself beyond his tumble at both ends with his post-match rant on MUTV. “Ever since people from other teams have spoken about us we’ve had absolutely nothing,” Maguire harrumphed on MUTV. “I was so certain it was a penalty, I don’t even know why [the referee] has gone to the monitor.”
Maguire’s captaincy rank draws an inevitable comparison with Roy Keane, ‘quite disappointed’ with a goalless draw with Real Madrid – in the Bernabeu. It was small-time to lament officiating after failing to beat West Brom and MUTV have edited out Maguire’s criticism of the referee Craig Pawson.
Maguire’s status as the world’s most expensive defender and club captain are protecting him, as are his defensive partners’ shortcomings. Victor Lindelof was so lightweight in his tangle with Mbaye Diagne it gave the illusion he was possibly fouled when he wasn’t.
His and Maguire’s performances were additional evidence for United’s dossier demanding another centre-back. That is not a laughing matter for Solskjaer.