‘Baby-faced Assassin’ steers United back among the big boys

So, things are looking up for Manchester United. Well, they are until they peer through their binoculars and spot Liverpool sitting 33 points above them.

A similar margin in the other direction would have seen them relegated.

Re-focus slightly and City are a distant 15. And City are the bookies’ favourites to be champions next time around.

The point here is not to take cheap shots at an ultimately satisfactory season, but to offer a little perspective.

Relief at qualifying for the Champions League was understandable, but it was more ‘job done’ than ‘new dawn’.

A skittish, edgy, and slightly fortunate falling-over-the-line win against injury-hit rivals who wasted some gilt-edged chances.

So, instead of haranguing the media for predicting they would finish sixth or seventh, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer might have been better advised to celebrate third place by saying ‘we’re not getting carried away.’

Leicester boss Brendan Rodgers had called for ‘a result that would be heard around the world’, but Solskjaer ensured it was United who made more noise.

And if he’d wanted a famous phrase to adorn the achievement, an appropriate one might have been: ‘It’s the end of the beginning’.

But credit where credit is due. Six months ago, United were booed off Old Trafford after a 2-0 loss to Burnley and those fans who had stayed to the bitter end didn’t hold back about suggesting changes to top personnel.

Much of their anger was directed at the Glazers and Ed Woodward, but for the first time the Norwegian copped a fair bit too. Former centre-back, Rio Ferdinand, described the performance as “an embarrassment”.

It was a cruel twist of the knife after being outclassed by Liverpool a few days earlier when an exultant Kop sang, “We’re gonna win the league”. But if it was a low point, United soon picked themselves up.

A 6-0 FA Cup win at Tranmere was followed by a 1-0 win over Manchester City in the Carabao Cup semi-final second leg.

It wasn’t enough to overturn the deficit, but at least it showed some fighting spirit.

Even so, few thought the Burnley loss would be the last time they’d get beaten in the league all season.

This is when Solskjaer started to prove the doubters wrong. With new transfer window signing Bruno Fernandes finding his feet, United finally had the missing link in midfield.

And with a young and vibrant front three grateful beneficiaries of the Portuguese’s creative spark, United gradually clawed their way up the table.

The gap between them and the high-flying Foxes had been 14 points before lockdown.

For holding it all together, keeping the revival going after the long break and reintroducing Paul Pogba with relatively little fuss, you must hand it to the man who was dismissed as a lightweight caretaker.

Could he have done it at any other club? Perhaps not, but he’s doing it here.

Just look at his predecessors. Where David Moyes was overwhelmed by the task, Louis van Gaal didn’t ‘get’ United and Jose Mourinho did but was no longer special, the ‘Baby-faced Assassin’ has shown a genuine feel for the club and a maturity beyond his years.

As he did yesterday by sitting up in the stands at the King Power, undemonstrative but inwardly churning, he has brought a cool Scandinavian detachment to proceedings.

Unlike Rodgers, there are no histrionics, he eschews grand statements and (as Celtic fans will note) he values loyalty.

Unlike his predecessors, he’s not been bedevilled by a previous reputation he had to live up to and, with no massive ego, he has got on with returning to something approaching the United Way – playing attractively and giving youngsters a chance.

They’re not there yet, and the true test will come next season. A Europa League trophy next month would be a further boost, but it didn’t do Mourinho an awful lot of good.

More importantly, it’s going to be what he does in the transfer window. Whether he can find a pacey centreback who can dovetail with Harry Maguire and solves the burning issues of David de Gea and Paul Pogba.

There will be money to spend and, so far, he’s bought no duds. Indeed, overall, his signings have been better than those of his predecessors.

He seems to have something going for him but just to remind his players of how much ground they have to make up, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to stick the English Premier League table on the dressing room wall when the new season starts.

 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.