You doubt even a handful of naively optimistic Manchester United fans, smothered in the midst of a dying Jose Mourinho reign could have foreseen such a turnaround in fortunes for their club just a month or so down the line. Yet there was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, their still baby-faced knight in shining armour, applauding the travelling support as he and his troops celebrated a win that could prove to be the springboard for United’s long road back to the top of British football.
Marcus Rashford’s angled first half strike was enough to give United a memorable victory at Wembley to make it five wins out of five in the league for ‘OGS’ since the former United striker took over for the season from the departing Jose Mourinho. A very kind run of fixtures to come into as new boss, lead to four wins on the spin for United yet it was the renewed zest and energy surrounding Solskjaer’s side that really made the headlines. Prior to Sunday’s trip to Wembley, United had scored fourteen goals in four games under their new interim boss. Though it wasn’t just the way United were winning games, it was who helping them win them.
Paul Pogba, who was famously on the other end of a bitter and not-so-private ongoing feud with Mourinho is now finally beginning to justify his world record price tag. Unshackled from extensive defensive responsibilities and you imagine a significant mental block when it came to doing his job, Pogba has been at the heart of United’s recent turnaround in fortunes. His superb assist for Rashford’s winner took his numbers under his new manager to four goals and five assists in just five league games. Statistics that are impressive for a world class forward, let alone a central midfield play-maker.
Another player who has clearly benefited from the change of leadership at the club is the aforementioned Rashford. After showing glimpses of excellence for club and country since he burst into the team under Louis Van Gaal, he, seemingly like the majority of his teammates has overcome a psychological barrier that arguably was placed before him by his old manager. Given the starting striker role by Solskjaer in front of a still out-of-favour Romelu Lukaku, Rashford was already repaying the faith shown in him before his Wembley winner. He has now scored four times in five in the league since Solskjaer’s arrival, having managed just three goals all season before that.
It’s not just starkly improved numbers at the business end of the pitch that has been a key factor of United’s recent success. There been has a fresh sense of confidence spread amongst the squad. So much so that are pressing the ball properly, playing to their strengths and even expressing themselves to a certain extent. Upon seeing this transformation of mood, alongside, let’s face it, actual trying from some of United’s players. Many will wonder where all this ability and doggedness was when Mourinho was at the helm earlier in the season. That’s a query without a clear or brief answer, yet it’s clear that Mourinho for whatever reason, had pushed his players into a cycle of mediocrity they couldn’t get out of. Many observing from media quarters this season have ranted lines akin to ‘Where have the United players gone?’, it’s still early days but you doubt it’ll be a question that will be asked much while the club’s former super sub is in charge.
As always in football things can change very quickly yet seemingly Solskjaer has all the key players on side with Sunday’s hero De Gea stating that they are the ‘real Manchester United’ again. Whatever the ‘real United’ actually means in 2019 is up for debate and the club might be better served trying to push forward with its current crop of talent than attempting to replicate Ferguson era football. For now though there are smiles back on the faces on United fans all over the world (trust me they’ll be at least one on your street wherever in the world you read this post from) and the teams battling for a top four spot now have a temporarily dormant giant to fret about again.
One of those teams is of course United’s opponents on Sunday, Spurs, who in truth would have transformed the subject of this very post if they managed to not fire basically every one of their attempts at goal near the anatomy of De Gea. In fact Mauricio Pochettino went as far to say their second half performance was one of the best he has ever seen since his time in North London. Yet whether through tough luck or something else more definable, they have lost significant ground in the past few weeks, just when they were being tipped for ultimate glory once again.
Saying this, Tottenham are still in all cup competitions (in an era where some still lazily question Pochettino’s trophy-less reign at the club) and the startling fact that they haven’t drawn a single league game so far, to some extent has nullified the damaging effect of already losing six league games this season. As stated previously on thesixyardring, Spurs find themselves in the seemingly unpopular position of being not quite strong to challenge for league glory while probably being well above the level required to get into the top four on a consistent basis. A curious curse that haunted the former manager of their North London rivals for many a year.
Though with talisman Harry Kane ruled out until March at the earliest and Heung-min Son helping his country out in the Asian games for the time being, Pochettino’s side will need to work harder than ever to keep that top four status let alone finally answer their critics by winning silverware as well. With a somewhat consistent Chelsea side right behind them in the league and a currently rejuvenated United gathering momentum now just seven points back, an already gripping race for the two remaining slots in the top four just took another unexpected twist. De Gea’s performance on Sunday outlined the constant fine margins involved with top level football and with six high quality teams at the summit of the table now in a position to keep on improving, the drama and intrigue associated with what is surely the world’s most competitive league looks set to continue as we navigate the fading winter months.
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