If you were to ask Ralph Hassenhuttl which team would beat Southampton 9-0 15 months after losing by that score line against Leicester, his first guess would not have been Manchester United.
Such is the transformation in recent months under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer that the score line seemed a formality as the goals starting flying in at Old Trafford.
Solskjaer’s ruthlessness was admirable even after making changes at half-time to rest key players. Instead of introducing Alex Telles for Luke Shaw, he moved Fred back to left-back with Donny van de Beek coming on in the centre. His gung-ho approach was rewarded with five more goals after the break, a record-equalling Premier League victory.
Scott McTominay delighted United supporters as he gestured to Daniel James, scorer of United’s ninth, to go and collect the ball so the Reds could hit double figures. Nine was not enough and that is the attitude that Solskjaer has instilled in his players.
Speaking after United were knocked out of the Champions League by Barcelona in April 2019, Solskjaer said there was an understanding with the club’s hierarchy that the club needed to rediscover the DNA that led to unparalleled success under Sir Alex Ferguson.
Solskjaer said: “I think only City have got a better average points-wise since I came in. When I was given the job there was an understanding that we had to get Manchester United’s DNA back into the club and the team.
“That doesn’t mean I want to live in the past. It would be naïve to tell players to do all the same things we did when I played. But I want to create a culture that we all believe in.
“When I played the manager trusted us and we took responsibility for our own careers. If anyone stepped out of bounds, they wouldn’t stay here long. That’s the way it has to be at a club like this.”
Solskjaer is delivering on what United asked him to do.
United haven’t won many games at a canter but some of their attacking football has been breath-taking at times this season. Seven different players got on the score sheet against Saints as United overtook Liverpool and Manchester City to become the highest scorers in the division this season. Not only are United exciting to watch – a far cry from the team’s style under previous manager Jose Mourinho – they are winning games when not playing at their best; a hallmark of title-winning teams.
Solskjaer has brought the best out of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, who enjoyed their most prolific seasons last year under the Norwegian. Martial has struggled to recapture that form but Solskjaer has stuck by the Frenchman and the manager will hope his two goals against Southampton can spark a mid-season revival.
The United boss successfully integrated Bruno Fernandes and built his team around the Portuguese, allowing the likes of McTominay and Fred to flourish in a system that suits their best attributes. Furthermore, Solskjaer oversaw Mason Greenwood’s permanent promotion and subsequent development in the first-team. The 19-year-old has suffered from a case of second-season syndrome but there have been signs of late that he is rediscovering his form. Solskjaer’s management of Paul Pogba’s situation has also been first-class, allowing the World Cup winner to play his way back into the team despite his voluble agent doing his best to create disharmony at Old Trafford.
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Arguably Solskjaer’s most impressive achievement is how Luke Shaw, and to a lesser extent, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, have developed under him.
The former seemed destined to leave United before blossoming into a key player under Solskjaer while the latter was lauded for his defensive ability but widely mocked for his struggles further forward. United’s first goal against Southampton was a culmination of Solskjaer’s work with his wide defenders as Wan-Bissaka ventured from the back to turn home Shaw’s inch-perfect cross. After months of Solskjaer and his coaching staff telling their defenders to get forward, the message has got through.
United aren’t expected to end the season as champions of England but the progress under Solskjaer is undeniable. The United DNA is back.