The mind can play tricks. The passage of time colouring and clouding memories, creating a sense of nostalgia where none should be. And this season is showing that Manchester United fans are not immune to this phenomenon.
The morning after United’s thrilling but ultimately disappointing draw with Sheffield United at Bramall Lane on Sunday, a tweet is retweeted on to my timeline comparing Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s record with that of David Moyes. As sticks with which to beat Solskjaer go, it’s a pretty flimsy one that’s easily snapped into a million pieces with the merest mention of anything approaching context.
It’s true that Solskjaer has won fewer games than his Scottish predecessor had at the same stage of his ill-fated spell on the Old Trafford sidelines. Yet this hardly tells the whole story, as anyone that witnessed the nature of Moyes’ tenure will attest.
The ‘Chosen One’ inherited a team of champions, fresh off the back of a twentieth title win for the club. Players like Robin Van Persie, Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney greeted him upon his arrival. While they were past their prime, no one could have predicted the catastrophe that ensued.
There were so many nadirs during that season that you could write a book about them. Those of us who were there will never forget the haunting rendition of ‘Twenty Times’ that rang out around the stands of Old Trafford for the final twenty minutes of the 3-0 defeat to Liverpool. No one who was there will forget the humiliation of watching Manchester City taking their foot off the proverbial pedal and letting their engine idle so early in their 3-0 win against United at Old Trafford. They were so certain that the team of serial winners before them had no answers.
And who can forget Olympiakos away? Quite a few, it would appear.
Bald statistics don’t reveal such memories. Nor do they explain that Solskjaer, far from inheriting a squad bequeathed by a great like Sir Alex Ferguson, took over a shambles; a bloated squad. It was assembled by three sacked managers and an executive vice-chairman with a predilection for schmoozing with agents and showing off with marquee signings that the club didn’t need. Solskjaer spent much of the summer looking to offload some of the rabble, with many leaving too late to be replaced.
There are also those who have started harking back to Louis Van Gaal’s time at the helm as some sort of halcyon period of hope. And let’s not even get started on the many Jose Mourinho fanatics who, it appears, will never tire of telling us about what a raging success he was (spoiler alert: he wasn’t).
Of course, not everyone goes to these extremes of black and white. It is possible to believe that Mourinho, for example, didn’t get everything wrong and that he probably should have been allowed to spend a bit more money in his final summer at the club.
None of that was Solskjær’s fault, however, and it is clear that, while the Norwegian continues to make mistakes, there has been a marked upturn in both form and attitude in his players. After Sunday’s game, he said he was “thinking back to Everton because that team gave up. But this team didn’t. To turn it around was a great answer to get from the boys.” These remarks were inevitably pounced upon by those determined to see him fail. They saw it as a sign of meek surrender and an affront to United’s history.
Yet Rome wasn’t built in a day and, while his decision to play Phil Jones in this latest fixture verged on self-sabotage, the fact that his two first-choice midfielders were unavailable meant that United were always likely to struggle against a well organised, highly motivated Sheffield United team. And, when you take a step back, isn’t Solskjaer absolutely right in what he says? When was the last time United looked remotely likely to mount a thrilling comeback, particularly away from home?
The fact that that comeback was inspired by four academy products in Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Brandon Williams, Mason Greenwood and summer signing Daniel James deserves credit. The changes Solskjær made in the second half in response to their opponents’ superiority provided the impetus to mount that comeback. They must surely count in his favour.
Solskjær’s doubters are well within their rights to continue to doubt. With the spectre of Mauricio Pochettino looming large in the background adding fuel to their fire, those doubts are going nowhere fast. Still, fans should perhaps recall some of the darker moments of recent years when capitulation became the norm, surrender the standard, and comebacks like that seen on Sunday few and far between.
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