It's just like United to be cavalier
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's very first Old Trafford footprint that was, ultimately, to lead to Manchester United immortality, came about because the Reds had a penchant to let our cavalier football leave us vulnerable at the back.
In August 1996, Alex Ferguson’s side were trailing 2-1 at Old Trafford to Blackburn Rovers. Paul Warhurst and Lars Bohinen had scored either side of a Jordi Cruyff goal and the Reds were dominating the game and creating a hatful of chances.
Recalling that Reserves boss Jim Ryan had watched the new £1.5million unknown recruit from Molde, Solskjaer, impressing for the second team and telling the boss that he had ‘a player’ on his hands, the United manager called the 23-year-old Norwegian off the bench.
Solskjaer went on for his debut after 61 minutes to replace David May. Eight minutes later, he chalked up his first senior United goal to earn the Reds a draw.
Solskjaer created his legend on the back of match-saving and match-winning goals after United found ourselves behind. Most notably, of course, in the 1999 Champions League final against Bayern Munich in the Nou Camp.
Even the Treble-winning side had a tendency at times to ship a few goals when suffering as a result of United’s adventurous gung-ho style.
Solskjaer immediately recognised the need to restore United’s attacking verve after taking on the caretaker role in succession to Jose Mourinho.
Twelve goals in his first three Premier League matches has had an instant reward. But the United interim manager also knows that a mean defence is the vital platform for that bold attacking threat to succeed.
“We are looking for that clean sheet, we are looking for that foundation to let those front four just go and enjoy themselves because when you know you are keeping a clean sheet at the back, it is easier to perform and to create chances, nothing is rushed,” he said after United’s refreshing 4-1 demolition of Bournemouth.
The niggling negative was that lack of a clean sheet again. The problem for Solskjaer is that, in the whirlwind festive season since his appointment, the opportunities to work on that aspect of the Reds' recovery on the training ground have been rare. Christmas and New Year is not the ideal period in a marathon English campaign to spend many minutes working on weaknesses in training.
But when the fixture schedule eases slightly, Solskjaer’s next phase of the rebuild could get the time needed.
And he’s assembled a backroom team who know the value of a reliable rearguard. He inherited Michael Carrick from Mourinho’s staff but the midfielder spent the bulk of his trophy-winning seasons in front of a central defensive partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.
Bringing Mike Phelan on board also gives the bonus of a coach who played in front of Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister at their peak. Solskjaer himself spent some of his Old Trafford days being backed by influential defensive figures like Jaap Stam and Ronny Johnson. Three half-decent partnerships for the United coaching team to reference as they attempt to marry merciless and meanness.
Ole’s opening three matches has seen him equal Matt Busby and Mourinho’s winning starts as Manchester United boss. Mourinho came unstuck in his fourth match at home to City in the Manchester derby when the Reds lost 2-1. Busby stretched his opening sequence to five winning matches, the current club record league start under a new boss.
Game four saw Sir Matt’s embryonic Reds smash five past Liverpool and then beat Middlesbrough. Both those wins were built on the foundation of two clean sheets. With away matches at Newcastle and Tottenham the next two Premier League games between Solskjaer and potentially writing new history, finding that, so far elusive, clean sheet could be key.
But he mustn’t beat himself up too much about it. It is in the Old Trafford DNA to put fans on the edge of their seats. United’s defences in the trophy-winning years have all had that miserly base but with some blips thrown in to make it an exciting, explosive cocktail. The ‘We’ll score one more than you’ doctrine is the blueprint for reviving the breathtaking glories.
Ole’s legendary super-sub exploits wouldn’t have happened without those moments of madness!
The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.
Reading this in our app? If not, you might miss some exclusive features not found on ManUtd.com. Download the Official App here.