Soccer

On The Ball: Solskjaer must start winning games that matter

As a player, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was defined by securing silverware in the most dramatic fashion in Manchester United’s history. And yet, he claimed last week, a trophy is “sometimes more of an ego thing from other managers”.

That may be a self-serving argument.

He steered United to third last season and now second this term without getting as many medals as Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho.

United’s satisfaction with Solskjaer may show how their priorities have changed but the Norwegian has lost four semi-finals and has now reached two more quarter-finals, in the FA Cup and the Europa League. Yet, for the first time since the 1980s, United could go four successive seasons without silverware.

A simplistic explanation might be that he is not a big-game manager. After all, United prop up the big-six mini-league this season.

Yet he has defeated Pep Guardiola four times in his reign. His United have beaten Paris Saint-Germain, RB Leipzig, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham. They won on the final day of last season at Leicester in what was in effect a play-off for a Champions League place.

Sometimes they prosper under pressure.

So there are other reasons. Solskjaer’s United can be a momentum team and their 2019 Champions League and 2020 League Cup exits came when they were out of form.

There were strategic failings: In two semi-finals United came up against Manchester City, they were fooled by Guardiola’s ploy of using a false nine.

Another was to Chelsea when Frank Lampard learnt a lesson from earlier defeats by Solskjaer, matched United with a similar 3-4-2-1 system and recorded a tactical triumph. The other, to Sevilla in last season’s Europa League semi-finals, represents the greatest missed opportunity, and not merely because United led and then lost. But it was their 61st game of the season and a 14th in 58 days.

Harry Maguire started all 14, Bruno Fernandes 13, Marcus Rashford 12. Whereas City have prospered by rotating, there is an ongoing question if Solskjaer underuses his squad and overplays his premier performers.

Some have had a greater workload already than their peers will in an entire campaign. Maguire has played 3,856 minutes, Aaron Wan-Bissaka 3,557, Fernandes 3,456, Rashford 3,323.

Rashford did not score in the final six games of 2019-20, which included two semi-finals, while Fernandes’ only goals in the last nine were penalties.

Wan-Bissaka was particularly poor against Sevilla. Maguire scored an own goal and endured a tough time against Chelsea. Fatigue felt a factor and the longer United’s season lasts, the more it becomes a risk.

They have played 46 games this season. There could be 17 more. History threatens to repeat itself.

Relying on that core may have clinched United’s top-four finish last season and booked it this term, but any marginal lack of sharpness is likelier to be exposed by the kind of elite opponents who reach semi-finals.

Rewind 20 years and Solskjaer was the kind of squad player who could change them. His mentor, Alex Ferguson, was a master of the knockout tie.

He lost only six semi-finals in 27 years. Solskjaer could equal that in two.

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