United beat the best now they must prove they can beat the rest
It’s up to them now. What happens from here depends on Manchester United’s players. Do they want to emulate their manager, revered for his selfless contribution to a team that set the highest standards? Or do they want to be Arsenal, costing good men their jobs in an arena bubbling with anger and frustration?
Any team who can perform as United have done these last two matches, who can play a resurgent Tottenham off the park, who can go to the home of the champions and be better, pretty much start to finish, are capable of more.
Manchester United this season have now beaten Leicester, Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham and drawn with Liverpool. They have also lost to Crystal Palace, West Ham, Newcastle and Bournemouth and drawn with Aston Villa.
This smacks of selfishness — a group who can find their game once illuminated by the precious spotlight, but are not prepared to do the hard yards, the low key, the week in, week out. Arsenal have been like that for years now.
Certainly, this is not the Manchester United Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knew. ‘When I played, that’s how we won the league,’ he said. ‘We never gave points away against the lesser teams, the not-so-good teams.’
Never let up, either. On February 6, 1999 — the season Manchester United won the Treble — they were leading 4-1 away at Nottingham Forest when Sir Alex Ferguson introduced Solskjaer as a 71st-minute substitute for Dwight Yorke. He scored four goals in the last 10 minutes, including two in injury time, as United won 8-1.
That might seem easy. It’s not. It requires incredible strength of character to stay motivated as Ferguson’s United were, minute after minute, game after game, season after season.
Solskjaer was the epitome of the regime because he didn’t always start yet remained hungry to impress each time he did — even though it rarely meant keeping his place. The next league game after the Forest win, Solskjaer was a non-playing substitute against Arsenal.
He did not start against Coventry in the match after that, either. Never complained, never let his standards drop. That is why he is adored.
‘It was about fighting for your place in the team,’ said Solskjaer. ‘You wanted to show him (Ferguson) that you should be in the team next week. It is the same now. Every game is a chance for these boys to prove to me, “I should play, I should play”. The mentality must always be that way.
‘If the boys are then telling me they can’t get up for these games — we’ve got a problem. Then I’ve really got to work with them, work on the mentality. But even if it’s a mental thing, we can sort it out. But for me, why I’m not so negative, not so worried, is that I think it’s been very much about margins in those other games.
‘It’s consistency and just being better at taking care of our chances. There are so many games I could go through that we should have won.
‘We know we have to get better results against teams that drop deeper. We’ll improve on that. Then it’s up to me to make sure that in every game they know they have to earn the right to win.
‘We know we can play quick, attacking football when we get the shape right, as we did here. The attitude was spot on and every time we had the ball it seemed we could carve them open.
‘The first half, in particular, was attacking football as it should be played — with personality. We were tired and dug in towards the end but none of them gave up. I’ve said so many times, I’ve got boys who want to improve.
‘Remember, the team I played for were an exceptional group. Those players were unbelievable, incredible personalities. But we’re getting there.
‘They’re learning, they have great attitude, great values — they just don’t have the experience my team had.’
There are players at Manchester United who know what it is like to win the Premier League — Phil Jones, David de Gea and Ashley Young in Ferguson’s final season, Nemanja Matic and Juan Mata with Chelsea — but they don’t always start.
By contrast, Solskjaer joined a team that had won three of the previous four titles. Plainly, they were different. The potential is there, though, in young players such as Marcus Rashford and Daniel James — who was once again exceptional — and emerging talents such as Fred, who is another player, like Jorginho at Chelsea, now benefitting from a second season in English football.
He was arguably United’s best performer at the weekend, despite being targeted by jeers from the start — he rejected City for United — and missiles and fouler abuse later.
Greater Manchester Police and Manchester City are investigating footage that appears to show a man making racist gestures and noises in the direction of Fred and Jesse Lingard, although the evidence is less wholly conclusive viewed in full and may prove more problematic in court than the usual Twitter chancers would have the world believe.
While the fan’s explanations are unconvincing, a stadium ban might be more easily enforced than a criminal charge.
Whatever emerges, however, Fred deserves credit for his display — as do United who were the superior attacking force in the first half and the better team defensively in the second, shielding a two-goal lead.
For all their possession, City only scored through a header from a corner and did not look likely to do so until then.
In this respect it was very much like their performance at Anfield. Plenty of the ball but little cutting edge. Ederson was considerably busier than De Gea across 90 minutes.
Now 14 points adrift of Liverpool, this is a new experience for Pep Guardiola (left) and he admitted as much.
He has earned the right to be stubborn, though.
So, no, he doesn’t think he needs to make a lot of changes to the group; yes, he likes his players and the way they play; no, there will not come a time when he prioritises the Champions League because retaining the title is an impossibility.
And he’s Guardiola, so it would be the height of foolishness to treat the man as if he does not deserve indulgence.
The reason Liverpool are on a record-breaking run is that they had to get as good as that to pass Manchester City. So, while it might not be going right this season, respect is due.
And really, as a coach, if a player is going to make a challenge as daft as Bernardo Silva’s on Rashford to give away the penalty for the first goal, there isn’t much you can do.
Yet, against that, Guardiola does appear tired and maybe he is coming to the end of his cycle, too, like a number of others in this City side.
In that respect, all is far from lost with Manchester United and their emerging young group.
Yet this is a crossroads.
Their next four league games are Everton, Watford, Newcastle and Burnley. It is time to decide which United they want to be.Daily Mail