Everything continues to go right for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United, with eight wins in eight matches accompanying a lift in spirit around the previously disheartened club.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s golden honeymoon at Manchester United must end sometime, but it hasn't yet and, on the latest piece of evidence, it's not going to anytime soon. In Friday's FA Cup encounter at the Emirates, Arsenal never came close to the heights of the performance in last Sunday’s victory over Chelsea and was picked off by a United side playing with a formidable ruthlessness. Solskjaer, once again, got his gameplan right and was rewarded with a 3-1 win and progress to the fifth round.
Perhaps more significant in the wider scheme of things, that’s eight wins out of eight now for Solskjaer. United hasn’t even been behind in a match since he replaced Jose Mourinho. As each game goes by, Solskjaer looks like a better candidate to take the managerial job on a permanent basis in the summer. At this point, he could hardly have done more to make his case.
There are times when it seems whatever a manager tries comes off, when it as though he has somehow tapped into the deeper rhythms of the universe, so that events mold themselves to his will. Solskjaer is going through one of those, a blessed period of grace when he must feel all-powerful. But while there is a sense of the planets aligning for him at the moment, and there must be an awareness that it isn’t always going to be like this, Solskjaer is proving himself a far better manager than ever seemed the case when he was at Cardiff City.
In part, it is emotional. He is not Mourinho, and that fact alone would have been enough to lift the mood. That it is still elevated six weeks later, though, suggests it is rather more than that. Perhaps picking Alexis Sanchez for an away game at Arsenal was a consequence of his desire to rest Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, who have started every league game under him, but giving him a run at the team he left a year ago perhaps offered a boost as well.
Sanchez got the opener, but perhaps even more striking was the identity of the provider. Romelu Lukaku has not had an easy season, and by the end of Mourinho’s time at the club, he was almost visibly bereft of confidence. There were reasonable questions about whether he and Sanchez could play together. The Chilean prefers to drift in from the left, but Lukaku at center forward tends to be a fixed point, meaning there is no space for Sanchez to attack.
But that’s assuming Lukaku plays centrally. Oddly, although he never seems comfortable dropping deep from a central position, he is adept at starting wide on the right and cutting in, just as he did, for instance, in Belgium’s victory over Brazil at the World Cup. Solskjaer pulled the same trick he did at Tottenham, using Jesse Lingard as a false nine and deploying his two notional center forwards wide to hit the space behind the fullbacks. Having slipped Sanchez in for the first with a deft pass, Lukaku teed up the second as well, charging forward on the right, getting in behind Sead Kolasinac on the counter and pulling the ball back for Lingard to finish.
Playing Lukaku high was a calculated gamble from Solskjaer, trying to exploit the way Kolasinac gets forward to support Alex Iwobi. It worked for the second, but it was also a contributory factor in the goal Arsenal got back just before halftime. With Lukaku clearly under instruction not to track back, but to wait for the breaks, Arsenal was able to work overloads on its left. Aaron Ramsey was the beneficiary in the 43rd minute and, after creating space for a cross with a stepover, rolled the ball across goal for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to score.
But there was no comeback beyond that. United defended well in the second half and then, after Martial and Rashford came on, upped its threat on the break. The decisive third arrived in the 82nd minute, with Paul Pogba leading a surge and, as Arsenal backed off, unleashing a shot that bounced awkwardly in front of Petr Cech. He parried the save, and Martial knocked in the loose ball.
As at Tottenham, United was grateful to its goalkeeper, with Sergio Romero on this occasion making an outstanding save early in the second half to push a Ramsey header onto the bar. But at the moment, Solskjaer seems to be able to rely on his goalkeepers to make saves when needed. Everything is going for him, and United is having fun again.