It has taken time for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to truly improve Manchester United’s fortunes since taking over, but the former playing legend seems to have finally moved up a gear following an astute January transfer window.
The Red Devils got an inevitable new manager boost when the former Molde boss first went in on a temporary basis, creating a real stir by eliminating Paris Saint Germain from the Champions League. His status as a former player left him with plenty of goodwill to lean upon when things got tougher at the end of the season with two wins in 12.
This campaign hasn’t all gone his way; United have struggled to dispatch some teams they really should be beating. They have lost to Crystal Palace, West Ham, Bournemouth and Newcastle in the league, seemingly unable to break down teams who wanted to defend stoically and hit United on the break.
Goals weren’t necessarily the problem, but there were two important aspects absent from their play. The first was midfield guile. Jesse Lingard, Andreas Pereira and Fred simply couldn’t regularly tee up the sort of chances Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial needed to score goals. When it came to unlocking defences, they simply didn’t seem to have the right keys.
Upfront, whilst the forwards weren’t shot-shy, they lacked a battering ram, a player who might become the focal point for a more direct, aggressive attack. Rashford and Martial are both strong footballers but were getting easily bullied by big defenders willing to leave the boot in. They lacked a creator and a brute force finisher, whereas other sides did not.
Bwin Sports reported that Manchester United’s rivals all had significant goalscoring partnerships coming out of January, something Solskjaer’s side did not have. Man City have De Bruyne and Jesus linking up, Leicester boasted Iheanacho and Vardy, whilst Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Mo Salah combined regularly for champion-elect Liverpool.
To combat that issue, United pursued and signed Bruno Fernandes in January. They paid £67.6m for the 25-year-old, hoping he might add the flair that has for so long been absent from their side. He is the sort of player fans enjoy paying to watch, a creator who added the much-needed spark that some who went before him, such as Alexis Sánchez, have failed to do.
That still didn’t answer the questions posed upfront. The pursuit of Erling Haaland seemed to be offering them some hope of signing a prolific forward, but ultimately he moved to Dortmund, forcing United’s hand. They seemed to just settle for the uninspiring Odion Ighalo, a former Watford striker who spent the last three years playing in China.
The Guardian detailed how he was forced to train away from the rest of the Man Utd team after joining through fears of spreading coronavirus, but he’s since made a big impact. He’s scored in every game he’s started, culminating in a wonderfully controlled drive against Lask which had fans purring with delight.
Between them, Ighalo and Fernandes might not have had pulses racing when they first signed, but the evidence is that Solskjaer’s business has been beyond shrewd. There’s no doubt their current crop of players have the ability, but the double capture has added vital ingredients to the mix that might just be enough to earn United a trophy this season.
Beyond that, who knows? It’s been a while since United were a force domestically and living in the shadow of Manchester City has not been easy, but with three wins against Guardiola’s side this season, there might be signs the balance of power is once again swinging in the football-mad northern city.
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