You can no longer accuse Manchester United of being one-dimensional under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
For far too long, United were something of a one-trick pony, unable to win games by any method other than via the counter-attack. Their midfield and forward line did not function when denied space by defensively disciplined sides, while their defence was vulnerable to set pieces or opposing sides’ counter attacks.
That was evidenced against Crystal Palace earlier this season when United were beaten 2-1 at home. But plenty of other frustrating games summed up the nature of this malfunctioning side: West Ham away, Newcastle away, Aston Villa at home, Burnley at home. It was infuriating and, in truth, plain worrying.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Solskjaer has improved United from front to back. Even David de Gea would appear to have returned to something like his old self, with United’s 2-0 win over Crystal Palace exhibiting in patches the best of this side in all facets.
Okay, it wasn’t anything like the complete performances we have witnessed from United against Sheffield United, Brighton and Aston Villa since the restart, but it showed they are up for the fight in any game. In previous similar contests this season, they would surely have dropped points.
And as Solskjaer prepares his team for a different kind of test in the FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea this weekend, it must be heartening for the manager to know his team have become adaptable and versatile.
“You don’t expect anything else from a Roy Hodgson team; well organised, some very good individuals out there and you can see them enjoy themselves,” Solskjaer said after grinding out the win at Selhurst Park.
“We didn’t really get going, especially before half-time. But in moments we show what we can do and it’s great to watch that tempo when the ball goes forward, the runs go forward, movement of the ball, so two fantastic goals.”
Not playing well but winning? It’s exactly what Sir Alex Ferguson’s United used to do, though as Solskjaer said the best teams always create dangerous moments.
Those moments were all United needed, and this time they had the quality to make them count, largely through the razor-sharp Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, who were threatening all night long – even if some of their teammates were off the boil. But while Rashford and Martial were making chances for themselves and each other, they would have been isolated without the service of Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba.
It’s the addition of those two players to the United team that has changed everything, now allowing Solskjaer’s side to dominate games from start to finish, but also to step up in the big moments. The Norwegian can satisfy himself in the knowledge that even if Fernandes and Pogba don’t boss a game – and they cannot do it all the time – they’ve got the talent to hurt teams.
Andreas Pereira was United’s No.10 earlier in the campaign and he wasn’t capable of recording anything like the assist numbers that Fernandes is now posting.
Whether United will be able to pass Chelsea off the Wembley pitch on Sunday remains to be seen. But even if they can’t, they can either battle toe-to-toe with Frank Lampard’s side and pounce in the clutch moments, as they did versus Palace; or they can sit deep and counter with sheer pace, which proved a successful method against the big sides earlier in the season.
Rashford and Martial will be vital to all three methods, as will the precision passing of a much-improved midfield and a defence that, despite its critics, has functioned well all season. Only Liverpool have conceded fewer goals.
Solskjaer founded this United era on pace, on counter-attacking and a solid base at the back. But he always knew United had to offer more than that.
Plan A has become Plan C, as United have found two more ways of winning games. Over the next few weeks they will face a range of different sides: from Chelsea to West Ham to Leicester, to a series of European opponents.
They’ll need all their gameplans at the ready.