EPL

Solskjaer battles back from the brink to leave City's title defence in ruins

By Sports Desk December 07, 2019

As the Christmas season unofficially began on December 1, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looked anything but merry.

Manchester United had been held to a 2-2 draw at home by promoted Aston Villa and the Red Devils' performance was utterly rancid for much of the game. Solskjaer appeared helpless at full-time.

Ahead of a particularly bleak run of mid-winter fixtures, reports suggested Solskjaer could join Santa in expecting to be burdened with the sack for Christmas. Two games to save his job, some said, with Mauricio Pochettino looming large.

Those two matches; Jose Mourinho's Tottenham and Manchester City in the derby – it wasn't the sleigh bells that were ringing. 

Some might have been content with two points, yet they've managed to take six and left City's title defence in tatters after a 2-1 win over the champions.

Much of the build-up was dominated by 'we're back' talk among both sets of supporters. City had crushed Burnley comprehensively, while United produced arguably their best display under Solskjaer in a 2-1 win over Tottenham.

Saturday's performance left no such room for argument – it was undoubtedly the greatest of his tenure. 

So much of the Norwegian's time at the helm has been mired by worryingly erratic form – one week they barely manage to salvage a draw against Villa, showing a concerning lack of desire, and then follow that up with a genuinely laudable performance at home to a resurgent Spurs.

Such inconsistency has understandably led to questions over Solskjaer's game-management, with United frequently struggling against opposition that sit back despite boasting a solid record of only two defeats in 11 meetings with 'big-six' opponents and Leicester City before the derby.

Solskjaer did little wrong on Saturday, however.

A devastating first half an hour showed just how good this United team can be, particularly going forward.

The fluid front three of Daniel James, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial was electric, while the much-maligned Jesse Lingard showed the kind of technique and drive not seen from him for a long, long time.

United's strengths are by no means a secret – they are blessed with immense pace in attack and are at their best hitting teams on the counter.

City fell into a trap entirely of United's making.

The midfield pair of Scott McTominay and Fred sat extremely deep, while the front four also dropped well back, essentially becoming a second midfield. As such, the gap between United's defence and attack was often minimal, allowing them to break as a unit.

The dynamism and agility of United's attack was plain to see for both goals – firstly Rashford driving into the box and winning the penalty that he converted, before James and Martial linked for the Frenchman's well-worked goal.

But United's effectiveness was about more than just three players running really, really fast. Defensively they had several players who were imperious.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka dealt with Raheem Sterling impressively, making five tackles and seven clearances in a fine display, while McTominay was similarly impressive. The Scotland international won possession back via three tackles, three interceptions and came out on top in 81.3 per cent of the 16 duels he was involved in.

Added to that, Fred enjoyed his best match for United, creating two chances and showing a general awareness that could rarely be associated with the Brazilian previously. On this evidence, you can begin to understand why Pep Guardiola had been so keen to bring him to City.

City's second-half desperation predictably saw United come under pressure and, for a moment it looked like the Red Devils would yet again cave and throw away a lead after Nicolas Otamendi pulled one back.

But it wasn't to be.

While reservations over Solskjaer's suitability for the role will remain as long as his team continue to falter against teams they should beat, there's no doubt in his ability to squeeze every last drop out of his players in the big games.

And in the biggest of matches, United rose to the occasion to leave City 14 points adrift of the summit, their title hopes torn to shreds like so much festive wrapping paper. 

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    Real Madrid lifted the lid on the worst-kept secret in world football on Monday when they confirmed the signing of Flamengo talent Reinier Jesus for a reported €30million.

    In completing the long-reported deal, Los Blancos bolstered an already impressive collection of young players on their books, with the club's future planning seemingly second to none in world football.

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    Reinier completed his switch the day after his 18th birthday and, while his price tag appears hefty, it actually led to friction within Flamengo – coach Jorge Jesus accusing the club of not being able to value their players, a comment vice-president Marcos Braz subsequently shut down.

    Although a regular in transfer gossip columns of late, Reinier remains something of an unknown quantity and a complete rookie given he has played just 15 matches of senior football.

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    What's Reinier's favoured role?

    "Reinier is at his best in a No.10 role, but he does like to play slightly more advanced than a traditional '10', staying close to the striker as much as possible," Andy surmised.

    It is an area in which Madrid are by no means short, but Reinier also boasts the flexibility to fill in right across the frontline. "He has actually been used as a striker at times by Flamengo as a result," Andy added.

     

    What are his greatest attributes?

    A Brazilian attacker coveted by Real Madrid – you might be able to guess at a few of his strongest traits, though Andy has also been impressed by Reinier's poise when it matters.

    "A quick, direct dribbler who can glide past his man with ease, as well as possessing deceptively good close control and technique," Andy said. "He's also got a real eye for goal, with six goals in 729 minutes of senior football, with his composure really impressive given his very young age."

     

    In which areas does he need to improve?

    While he is certainly costly, it should not be forgotten Reinier has only just turned 18 and is by no means the finished article. Our expert has reservations over the Flamengo product's physicality and athleticism at the moment.

    He said: "He needs to progress physically as we have seen him struggle to keep up the pace in the latter stages when playing a full 90 minutes, but that should all come as he learns the game and adapts to a more rigorous training regime in Europe. As with any young Brazilian, he will need a lot of growth on the tactical side of the game, but his six months under Jorge Jesus will prove a real benefit, rather than playing under some of the archaic Brazilian coaches."

     

    Which player could he be comparable to?

    Every talented young player from Brazil or Argentina gets labelled as the heir apparent to a previous superstar, and it seems Reinier is no different having drawn comparisons to a former Madrid player.

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    "I see him as a '10' – a Rai, a Kaka," he told FIFA. "I see these characteristics in Reiner. He likes getting in the box, scoring goals. He also scores goals from outside the box. I've so much belief in him. He's a kid, a youngster, but he's very level-headed and because of this he's our captain. I firmly believe we'll see him playing at a very high level overseas."

     

    How does his potential stack up compared to Rodrygo and Vinicius?

    There is no doubt Madrid are backing their own track record of turning raw young talents into the world's best, such has been their investment in under-23 players over the past few years. And the consensus is, Reinier's potential is vast.

    "It's difficult to say given Rodrygo and Vinicius were given more time to show their talents in Brazil before moving, but Reinier's talent has been obvious since his very first game and I think the general feeling is that, if all goes well, then he could end up being the best of the lot," Andy observed.

     

    Have there been any concerns relating to his mentality?

    Talent can only take you so far. As a teenager moving to a new continent, Reinier will surely face mental challenges and those will likely determine whether or not he achieves success – but in terms of professionalism, he is seemingly well set.

    "Reinier's team-mates and coaches have all been very positive about his attitude and willingness to learn, so he looks well-placed to make the most of his talents," Andy commented.

    Similarly, his coach Jorge Jesus has no worries about that side of the 18-year-old, telling Marca: "I believe a lot in Reinier. I had several talks with him and we talked a lot from the point of view of how he can get better, about his defects, what needs to be corrected. Reinier is a very intelligent kid, he likes to learn and I can say he is a gifted one. I assure you, he is going to mature there. He will arrive in Madrid safe and quiet to do a job, but it is necessary to give him some time."

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    "It's just to protect the players … For them they'd enjoy it more, the people too. People say they can't live without football, they can live without football for a while. It's too much, honestly."

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    Kane's hamstring problem and Rashford's back issue were a blow to Gareth Southgate ahead of Euro 2020, but Guardiola feels those in charge of the game in England cannot be surprised.

    "It's a big blow for Gareth, for the national team. Kane and Rashford are incredibly important players for them. Hopefully there isn't another one who does that and they can recover," he said.

    "It's an incredible amount of games. Now we're talking about it because they are [injured], but looking back at the injuries Newcastle have had, we have had, all the teams. That is normal. With that number of games, sooner or later the players break down.

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