Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s attempt at humour about the dimensions of the goalframe at Brighton was clumsy if innocuous. He soon discovered that laughing at the expense of Jose Mourinho is like telling Joe Pesci he’s a ‘funny guy’.
Mourinho is an expert in deadpan comedy and stand-ups would have marvelled at his delivery that Solskjaer would ‘never accept to play with a 17-yard box, I think he would prefer a 22-yard box’. Four of United’s last six wins have been decided by Bruno Fernandes penalties and the Portuguese is on track to surpass Eric Cantona for spotkick conversions before Christmas with the robotic definition of the handball rule.
Those who spent half-an-hour with Solskjaer in United’s opulent Perth hotel last summer will recall he signed off by expressing his preference for speaking without cameras present. Typically, United have not arranged a single sit down away from the cameras since and broadcasters’ bulbs loom like headlights and Solskjaer occasionally goes as limp as a rabbit.
“This is the team that played well last time we were here,” Solskjaer explained prior to kick-off on Saturday. “So we hope we can find some of that form again.”
If you are feeling a touch of déjà vu then it is understandable. Ahead of the FA Cup quarter-final at Norwich on June 27, Solskjaer’s rationale for his XI was it was the same team that had played in the previous round at Derby on March 5, with the exception of Harry Maguire. The mass rotation (there were eight changes) upset United’s rhythm and they eked out a win via extra-time.
Eighty-seven days separated United’s south coast stroll at Brighton on June 30 and their cliffhanger at the weekend. Reverting to the ‘first XI’ that started five consecutive Premier League games in June and July proved a journalist’s point that United were standing still (something Solskjaer took umbrage with on Friday’s Zoom call) and, like at Norwich, United relied on a late winner, one so late it came after the match had initially ended.
After the slog at Nowich, Solskjaer conceded he ‘didn’t make it easy for them’ with his tinkering and the Derby tie was ‘a few months ago’. He still followed the same rule of thumb at the Amex Stadium against an improved Brighton operating in a different formation and with four starting survivors from their June humbling. The final score was a travesty.
For someone synonymous with balanced rotation during his playing career, Solskjaer’s experiences under Sir Alex Ferguson have compromised his objectivity as a manager. Maguire is being overplayed to the extent he is starting against LASK and Luton, Paul Pogba has started in two Premier League games running he was unfit for and Victor Lindelof benefits from Scandinavian solidarity when the King of Sweden would not pick him.
Marcus Rashford is such a beneficiary of Solskjaer’s favouritism he has developed an air of entitlement despite three good games since football’s abeyance ended. Rashford’s emoji tweet following his fabulous solo goal at Brighton confirmed suspicions either he or his management team are of the opinion he is Teflon.
— Marcus Rashford (@MarcusRashford) September 26, 2020
Rashford always starts because the competition is non-existent, unlike in Solskjaer’s era. He plundered four goals against Everton in December 1999 and poached another in a midweek victory over Valencia, yet was back on the bench at West Ham. Teddy Sheringham was a scoreless starter in the 5-1 shellacking of Everton but partnered Dwight Yorke at the Boleyn Ground. United were 3-0 up inside 19 minutes.
That was the season Solskjaer summoned the courage to challenge Ferguson’s demotion of him for the Easter Monday visit of Chelsea. United had retained the title two days earlier at Southampton, where Solskjaer clinically scored, and PSV Eindhoven figurehead Ruud van Nistelrooy was expected in the Old Trafford directors’ box.
“I said: ‘No, I can’t have that’,” Solskjaer recalled in a 2018 interview. “This was because earlier he’d challenged me that he was going to sign Ruud and wanted to know could I play many games on the bounce? I said, ‘Here’s your chance.’
“I scored and did well and – after one day’s recovery. You can see me play two games in three days. He said: ‘Okay, son. You’re right.'”
Solskjaer touched upon managing millennials last month and anyone who has dealt with the age group in any industry will find that old school methods are anathema to most of them. Whatever your values, the last thing a footballer who tested positive for COVID-19, had no pre-season and reported for training nine days before the first competitive match needed were successive league starts.
Pogba’s passing accuracy of 70 per cent was his worst as a starter since the 2017 Europa League final and, according to WyScout, he was also under the average of successful actions, long passes and duels.
“He missed a lot of pre-season because of his illness,” Solskjaer said of Pogba. “He’s not had internationals or the friendly against Villa.” Solskjaer’s own diagnosis was sufficient to determine Pogba was not ready to line up against Crystal Palace or Brighton. United had a sprightly signing and their standout midfielder last season to pick instead yet Donny van de Beek and Fred started both matches on the bench and in both games Pogba was removed just after the hour.
Tottenham visit United on Sunday 107 days after the clubs restarted last season against each other, when Pogba was wisely benched, came on and changed the game by earning a penalty. Much to Mourinho’s chagrin.