Ole Gunnar Solskjaer rose from his seat without a smile. He shook Frank Lampard’s hand and then did the same with the Chelsea coaching staff. There were no fist pumps or sprints down the touchline. But deep inside, the Manchester United manager would have been delighted.
Monday 2-0 victory at Stamford Bridge could define United’s season. Defeat would have seen them fall nine points adrift of the top four. Instead, they now sit just three points behind the final Champions League qualification spot.
This was another impressive result against a big side for Solskjaer. The United boss has been barraged with criticism this season. It is time for him to be shown a little more respect.
This weekend’s fixtures were the reverse of those that took place on the first day of the season. On that occasion United thrashed Chelsea 4-0. It was a fantastic start to Solskjaer’s first full campaign in charge.
The feel-good factor did not last. The Red Devils won just one of their next eight Premier League fixtures. They slipped as low as 14th in the table. Their title chances were over after just a couple of months.
Nevertheless, United continued to deliver in big games. They beat Leicester 1-0, avoided defeat by Arsenal, and became the first – and still only – team to hold Liverpool to a draw this term.
In December they overcame Tottenham and Manchester City in back-to-back matches. They have beaten City and Chelsea in cup competitions too.
The personnel in United’s squad means they are better suited to facing opponents who want the ball. Solskjaer’s side are excellent in transition. They possess counter-attacking pace in abundance.
United have used this to good effect against some of the Premier League’s best teams. They were superb on the break in the first half of their 2-1 victory over City. Solskjaer set his side up perfectly . They sat back and absorbed pressure, before pushing forward at speed as soon as the ball changed hands.
There is another side to the coin, though. Against opponents they are expected to beat, United have often come up short. They have lost to Crystal Palace, West Ham, Newcastle, Bournemouth, Watford and Burnley this season.
United are far from a complete team. But it is hard to say they are underachieving given the squad at Solskjaer’s disposal. The Norwegian is doing a decent job when you take the wider circumstances into account.
If United do finish in the top four, Solskjaer can congratulate himself on a job well done. His star player, Paul Pogba, has missed most of the season with injury. There have been numerous off-field problems, with the club’s fans voicing their displeasure at the Glazers and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward.
Solskjaer does not have as strong a track record as the likes of Jurgen Klopp. Pep Guardiola or even Brendan Rodgers. He has not proven himself as a world-class manager. And he has struggled to come up with a formula to regularly defeat teams below United in the table.
Nevertheless, the Red Devils manager deserves more respect. He has beaten Guardiola twice in head-to-head encounters this term. He has got the better of Lampard three times. And he is the only Premier League manager to have taken anything from a match against Klopp’s Liverpool.
Solskjaer is not exempt from criticism when United lose. But that does not mean he is undeserving of praise when he gets things right.