For 94 minutes, it appeared Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s detractors would have plenty more to add to their ever-growing pile of evidence against the Norwegian. Indeed, Manchester United were poor for the majority of their must-win Champions League clash against Villarreal, yet by full-time it was Solskjaer whose case had been bolstered.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s stoppage time winner kept United on track to get out of their Champions League group after defeat to Young Boys on opening night, and it might well have kept Solskjaer on track as the club’s manager too. A fourth failure to win in five games might have signified the beginning of the end for him at Old Trafford.
Of course, Solskjaer’s critics, of which there is no shortage, will still point to fundamental flaws in what his team served up on Wednesday night. Many fans and experts expected an empathic response following last week’s damaging defeats to West Ham and Aston Villa. What they got was something far less convincing.
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The majority of what United produced against Villarreal was very familiar. More of the same. For all their attacking brilliance, they were grossly unbalanced through the centre of the pitch. Their opponents found it far too easy to cut through the Old Trafford outfit in transition and would have scored more had they shown a sharper edge in front of goal.
Of course, Manchester United were missing three of their best defenders - Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka - but there’s no guarantee they would have been any stronger at the back had they been at full strength. After all, this sort of performance has been witnessed more than once this season.
Even in attack, though, where Solskjaer’s teams have often dug him out over the last two years, there was a lack of structure. United’s final third approach appeared to consist of little more than getting the ball to Bruno Fernandes in the hope that the Portuguese would conjure up something out of nothing.
Edinson Cavani was introduced for the final 15 minutes, but the Uruguayan only further congested United’s play in and around the box even if his work rate upped the tempo. With Jadon Sancho withdrawn and Ronaldo’s natural instinct to operate as a centre forward, where he often found himself on top of Cavani, the hosts lacked an outlet on the left.
Yet there was never any sign of Manchester United downing tools. The sort of lethargy that often comes in the dying days of a manager wasn’t there. Instead, Ronaldo and co. continued to press hard for a winner, and they found it. United beat Villarreal through sheer will power.
Will power might not be enough for United to achieve their ultimate ambitions under Solskjaer, but it does show the players in the dressing room haven’t given up on their manager. Footballers are notoriously bad at faking commitment. The fight United demonstrated for Solskjaer was genuine.
Some will argue this result only prolongs the inevitable. That there’s only so much team spirit can mask, and that is true to a certain extent. But the same criticisms have been leveled at Solskjaer’s Manchester United side for the last two-and-a-half years and they have still managed to keep moving forward.
The tests will keep coming thick and fast for Solskjaer. Dropped points against Everton on Saturday will have the Norwegian’s critics at his throat again with back-to-back games against Atalanta critical to United’s chances of making the Champions League round of 16. There is little margin for error even after this.
But if Solskjaer’s worst qualities are so quickly highlighted, it’s only fair that his best traits are acknowledged. There are plenty who believe the Norwegian will eventually be found out as Manchester United manager, but his players aren’t among them.
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