Sometimes it’s still hard to believe blue has eclipsed red in Manchester. When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came to the North West in 1996, Manchester City were not even in the Premier League.
Yet there Solskjaer sat yesterday, some grey in his hair now, taking umbrage at the suggestion City’s current eminence could be permanent. Previous United managers tasked with turning back the sky-blue tide have sought refuge in circumstance. The message from David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho was that City simply had too much money.
It was, they said, not a fair fight. But Solskjaer has United in his blood and United people — those of a certain vintage, anyway — do not think like that.
‘I don’t agree,’ said Solskjaer. ‘What are you gonna do? Are you gonna give up? Not challenge them? No. City’s level is what we’ve got to get back to.’
Solskjaer has always been a slightly edgier individual than portrayed and here was evidence. United will need some of their manager’s fortitude if they are to bridge a gap that threatens to grow wider every season.
At least the Norwegian seems to think he has a plan. United have previously attempted to go pound for pound with City in the transfer market only to see investments in players such as Paul Pogba, Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku yield almost no return. Is that still a way forward?
‘What does it look like?’ asked Solskjaer rhetorically. ‘Do I look like I’m gonna spend hundreds of millions of pounds on players we’re not sure of?
‘As I said, we need to rebuild, we need to change the culture. You want the culture with that hunger and selflessness that most of these players are showing.
‘You’ve got the McTominays and Rashfords and Lingards, the players who know what Man United is. So you don’t deviate from a plan that you have set out.
‘You believe in what you’re doing behind the scenes, believe in the players, believe in the coaching staff and, of course, believe we’re gonna add to this squad with some very good players.’
That United are far, far behind their neighbours is impossible to deny. Ten years ago, Sir Alex Ferguson was trying to keep City at arm’s length and had just seen his team prevail in a thrilling derby that was settled 4-3 in United’s favour by a stoppage-time winner from Michael Owen.
United would give anything for a game containing a similar ebb and flow today. It would mean it had been competitive, at least. City have not always been at their sublime best this season and injuries to key players have smeared their sheen of invincibility.
But how many United players would get into Pep Guardiola’s team? Maybe just Harry Maguire, and this is the nub of Solskjaer’s problem. He can talk all he likes about fitness and confidence and youth, but none of it masks a lack of quality that is the culmination of years of flawed thinking.
United have been encouraged by Wednesday’s home win over Tottenham. It came in a season that has also seen them beat Leicester and Chelsea and draw with Liverpool. But all those results have come at home. Solskjaer’s team have been lousy on the road and if City play to anywhere near their potential this evening, it is impossible to imagine their old foes getting anything at all.
City no longer see United as a threat and that is quite something in itself. The champions’ modern obsession is Liverpool. Solskjaer suggested yesterday that he would like an old-fashioned derby, one with a little blood and thunder. ‘We are not playing basketball,’ he deadpanned.
But as for turning back time in terms of the balance of power in England’s most important football heartland, he may be waiting a while. Asked how long it would take yesterday, Solskjaer said: ‘How long is a piece of rope? As long as we’re going in the right direction and we get there, that day when we do it is gonna be a very good day.
‘Our aim is to go past the teams above us and I believe at Man United that’s what we have to aim for and believe in. We do have the resources to do it, so why not?’
Despite Liverpool’s lead at the top of the table, Solskjaer believes City to be the best team in the league and suggested it may help his team if Guardiola’s players believe that, too. ‘We might want them to be arrogant and confident because you don’t have to shout the loudest to throw the sucker punch,’ he said.
But the bald truth is that United have precious little to cling to these days. Asked if United are still the bigger of the two clubs, Solskjaer said simply: ‘Yes.’
He may be right but these days that feels like a consolation prize. Do not bet on an upset in this one.