This time last week, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer supposedly had two games to save his job. Unfortunately for him, it would mean avoiding defeat against Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur and Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
It was reasonable to expect that Mourinho would come to Old Trafford and ensure his players saw out a tactical master class, knowing that United struggle to break teams down, so all he had to do was keep them out and try to nick a result.
But as has so often been the case against better sides, Solskjaer pulled it out of the bag, and oversaw a deserved 2-1 victory.
After the game, reports suggested the players had spoken to the club’s hierarchy about their desire for Solskjaer to keep his job. The way they worked for him that evening, it would be easy to believe.
Scott McTominay, who was brought straight back in to the starting line-up after not playing for a month with injury, sung the praises of the Norwegian after the final whistle.
“I don’t read too much into what gets said,” he said. “Obviously it’s our duty as players to do our best for him and hopefully we can [perform well] because we love him. We love him as a group as well. Some of the points we’ve missed out on have not represented the level of performance, so hopefully we can keep pushing forward.”
Even with his intention of keeping the good performances coming, it’s unlikely that McTominay anticipated what would happen on Saturday evening at the Etihad.
Many United fans would have been happy with a draw away to City but at half-time would have been disappointed not to be three or four goals ahead. David de Gea had next to nothing to do, while Ederson had several saves to make, as well as watching Marcus Rashford’s attempt come back off the woodwork.
United’s young striker continued his good form of scoring goals in big games as he’s continued to thrive since being moved back out to the left by Solskjaer. He’s bagged 10 in his last 11 appearances for the club, after scoring the penalty he won when charging in to City’s box, and has moved up to third in the goalscoring charts.
Jamie Vardy is the only player in the league with more goals and assists than him.
Anthony Martial, who was an injury doubt ahead of the game after missing Spurs midweek, scored the second, and City never seemed to recover. Nicolas Otemendi scored a late consolation but De Gea was barely tested.
He’s come to United’s rescue time and again in recent years but they didn’t need goalkeeping heroics on this occasion to ensure they left with all three points, even though City totally dominated possession. United finished the game with more shots on target than the home team.
Despite the fact Solskjaer’s squad is inferior to Guardiola’s, he managed to put on an attacking display in the first half that was a throwback to the glory days. Not only that, he did so by continuing the traditions of the club.
Of the 14 players to feature for United at the Etihad, five came from the academy.
In the squad of 18, there were seven. By contrast, City didn’t play anyone from their academy and the one player of the 18 they did have, Phil Foden, was an unused substitute. The 19-year-old has yet to start a game in the league for City this season and has played just 84 minutes in total from the bench.
McTominay was seen grabbing the United crest on his shirt at the final whistle, while Rashford and Jesse Lingard walked off the pitch with their arms around each other’s shoulders, beaming. They will have grown up hearing stories of the legend of Solskjaer and Lingard even watched him in the 1999 FA Cup final at the old Wembley.
Emotion and passion for your team won’t always be enough to get you the result but you get the impression that having so many players who love the club and idolise the manager did United a favour on this derby day. They worked so hard from the first to final whistle.
Solskjaer’s record against poorer teams leaves a lot to be desired, but against the teams at the top he’s been very impressive. United are the only team to take points off Liverpool this season and have beaten Leicester, City, Chelsea and Spurs.
Anyone who is keen to write him off will struggle to when they look at that record.
As Solskjaer walked off the pitch, after pointing to the badge on his jacket in front of delirious away end, he spotted his mentor in the stands. Sir Alex Ferguson applauded his Champions League winning striker off the pitch, with the expression of a proud parent on his face, as Solskjaer responded by punching the air.
He’s made mistakes, and he will likely continue to make them, which leads to understandable criticism about a relative novice learning on the job at a club the size of Manchester United.
But the vast majority of fans are desperate for him to succeed and results like the one on Saturday don’t do any harm to his ambitions of staying at the club long-term.