As Manchester United approached Cardiff City’s stadium minutes before kick-off, all you could hear were chants for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on repeat. Those songs continued over the 90 minutes, with the fans welcoming back their legend as the manager of their club following the sacking of Jose Mourinho.
Had someone said a few weeks ago, when Mourinho was guaranteeing that the club would be in the top four by the end of the year, that Solskjaer would be the manager for Christmas, it would have been hard to believe.
But Christmas has come early for United supporters and the 5-1 win over Cardiff was a premature gift.
The last time United scored five goals in a game was Sir Alex Ferguson’s final match in charge in 2013. At his first press conference as United manager on Friday, Solskjaer coincidentally referred back to that game.
“I’ve already been in touch with him, there’s no one to get better advice from,” Solskjaer said of Ferguson.
You play with courage, go out there and express your skills, he said go out and express, take risks.
“The last game he had as a manager 5-5 against West Brom, that was almost the perfect end to him as a manager and I want the player to be similar, be the kids that love to play football and go out in front of the best fans in the world.”
It was clear what message Solskjaer had given to the players before kick-off, playing with the freedom they’ve craved during the years since Ferguson’s retirement.
Jesse Lingard scored twice, with Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Ander Herrera all adding their names to the scoresheet.
However, it wasn’t just the more attacking approach that was a notable difference to United’s games played this season, but how hard the players worked too.
United outran Cardiff by more than 5km and made 20 more sprints than them. The only other team they have outrun before Cardiff was Fulham at home, by 0.16km.
#MUFC outran Cardiff by over 5km and made 20 more sprints than opposition.
Only other team they have outran this season was Fulham at home, by 0.16km.#CARMNU
— ᗷIᒪᒪ ᖇIᑕᕮ ?? (@billrice23) December 22, 2018
“Today they’ve approached the game properly, they’ve worked hard,” Solskjaer said after the game. “One of the things I talked about today is that a Manchester United team should never ever be outworked, doesn’t matter what team you play, you should run more than them and then your skills will give you a chance of winning again. I said the same to these lads as I do back home in Molde, just work harder than them, enjoy yourselves, pass it forward, run forward. If you lose the ball I don’t mind as long as you work to win it back and they did.”
In recent weeks, Mourinho had talked about how the players hadn’t approached the game the way he had instructed. They didn’t play with the intensity he was asking for.
Yet Solskjaer has been there for a few days and already the players are eager to impress and do as he asks.
Some pundits and ex-players would argue that the players have let themselves down here, if they can go from the lacklustre football we witnessed under Mourinho to the mauling they dished out to Cardiff. There’s some weight to that argument, given that they are all professionals who earn a fortune.
However, you can’t look past the fact Mourinho was clearly getting something wrong when the same players go on to perform so much better for a manager whose only been there two minutes and has minimal experience in comparison.
Tactically, Solskjaer hasn’t had enough time to have his style ingrained, but he’s told them to go out and enjoy themselves, which they did, and is likely something Mourinho never said.
On paper, United have three easier games in a row ahead in the league, as well as an FA Cup tie, before the more challenging away trip to Tottenham Hotspur. This is a real opportunity for Solskjaer and the players to build some momentum, pick up lots of points, and bring the fear factor back to their opponents.
It may well end in tears, with Solskjaer lacking the pedigree you’d expect from a manager of one of the biggest clubs in the world, but at least the supporters are enjoying it now and are on side.
“Ole’s playing the way that United should,” the away end sang on Saturday, changing the words to a chant they had previously sung for Jose, in what had been an extreme case of false advertising. But this, the football they witnessed in Wales, is what they came to expect and demand from Solskjaer’s hero and mentor, Ferguson.
Maybe now they can see this sort of play on a more regular basis and, like the players, actually start to enjoy their weekends at the football again.
The trains back to Manchester were packed with fans singing song after song for their new manager.
Having applied for Cardiff away while Mourinho was still manager, knowing that if they were successful they’d have to make the eight-hour round trip days before Christmas, likely to see a dull 0-0 draw, they could feel fully vindicated that their loyalty had paid off, with the reward being one of the best away days in ages.
It’s too early to say the tide has turned, but it’s turning, and Solskjaer is the man United supporters have to thank for that.