Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s winning start to life at the Manchester United helm continued but the FA Cup third-round triumph against embattled Reading was the caretaker manager’s most unconvincing performance to date.
United racked up their fifth straight victory since the Norwegian replaced Jose Mourinho, although the Royals provided a test that belied their place five points adrift of safety in the Championship.
Reading arrived at Old Trafford without a win in their previous 10 matches but proved a handful on an afternoon that saw United emerge 2-0 victors thanks to Juan Mata’s penalty – after a lengthy video assistant referee delay – and a cool Romelu Lukaku strike.
In truth, many of Solskjaer’s nine changes under-delivered against Jose Gomes’ Royals in a performance that underlined the work still required.
This match also highlighted the tinkering still required with VAR as the length of delay was almost as frustrating as lack of communication inside Old Trafford before Mata scored from the spot.
Lukaku netted his third in as many games in first-half stoppage time, but things could have been different had Danny Loader and Callum Harriott done better with fine chances either side of the break.
But Reading’s lack of quality in the final third allowed United to head to Dubai for their warm weather training camp fresh from a fifth win, second successive clean sheet and FA Cup progress.
Despite the lack of quality on display, there was a good atmosphere throughout as the club’s work on improving the Old Trafford atmosphere was audible from those moved to the area normally housing the away fans.
Yet that intensity was not matched on the field, with much-changed United struggling for fluidity against organised Reading.
Alexis Sanchez’s strike from distance was the only moment of note until confusion reigned in the 20th minute, when Fred slotted home after collecting a return pass from Mata.
The linesman indicated offside, but referee Stuart Attwell held his finger to his ear as he received information from the VAR – the kind of communication lacking inside the ground, leading fans to jeer as the delay continued.
There was 125 seconds between Fred’s strike and the decision to award a penalty, with Omar Richards adjudged to have fouled Mata in the build-up and the Spaniard stepping up to send goalkeeper Anssi Jaakkola the wrong way.
“VAR, VAR, VAR” chanted United fans playfully when Andy Yiadom handled a Sanchez cross soon after, with Lukaku seeing an effort denied after bursting through as the home side looked to extend their advantage.
But Reading had now settled and began to probe, with Loader wasting their best chance after going past Sergio Romero but going so wide that the United goalkeeper was able to block him off.
Harriott tried his luck from distance as the visitors continued their unlikely push, with the Reading man having a shot on target that was far tamer than Yiadom’s stinging effort that forced Romero into action.
But just as Reading’s hope began to grow along came Lukaku to extinguish it, keeping his cool when meeting a pass from Sanchez to round Jaakkola and roll into the empty net.
United continued to wobble after the break as Harriott saw a shot saved by Romero after being put through by substitute Sone Aluko, leading Solskjaer to make three changes.
Limping Sanchez was among those withdrawn, while 19-year-old Tahith Chong came on for his debut.
Marouane Fellaini was another introduced and should have turned home an Ashley Young cross before Romero denied the lively Aluko in a stretched second half devoid of real quality.
The Old Trafford faithful remained in good voice, but, other than Andreas Pereira’s late attempt, there was little else to sing about.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has achieved something at Manchester United that not even Sir Alex Ferguson could. In fact, only one other manager has won his first four league games at United, and they named a street after Sir Matt Busby.
Nobody’s quite suggesting an Ole Gunnar Solskjaer Road to intersect with Sir Matt Busby Way outside Old Trafford – though put the idea to United fans on Twitter, and it may actually get some traction, so giddy has the Norwegian’s start to his tenure made everyone connected to the club.
But ever so slowly, there is gathering talk that the caretaker label applied to Solskjaer’s title should be removed.
He was asked the question on Wednesday, after the side’s 2-0 win over Newcastle, whether he would want to leave at the end of the season, once his interim deal runs out. For someone who has previously said managing the club where he played for eleven seasons, and became a club legend after scoring the goal that won the 1999 Champions League final and sealed that season’s famous Treble, was a dream, the answer was unsurprising.
“Of course I won’t, I don’t want to,” Solskjaer said.
“It’s such a great bunch of players, a fantastic atmosphere, but it’s the next game, it’s the next game, it’s the next game and I’m doing my job as long as I’m here.”
It is an open secret that United want Mauricio Pochettino as their next permanent manager. His Tottenham side play attacking, exhilarating football, and the Argentine has done an excellent job of developing and empowering a young core.
So far, on admittedly limited evidence, it seems Solskjaer has the same attributes.
Anthony Martial and especially Marcus Rashford have thrived under the new manager, after struggling at times under predecessor Jose Mourinho. The attacking trio of Martial, Rashford, and Jesse Lingard have combined to provide a fluid attack that United have been missing since Ferguson retired.
Paul Pogba looks like a man reborn. Romelu Lukaku has scored two goals in two appearances under Solskjaer. Even Nemanja Matic, a Mourinho loyalist and favourite, looks a much better player after the managerial change.
Of course, playing well for four games against sides in the bottom half of the Premier League means little, even taking into account the positivity that Solskjaer has brought to the club and the players.
So what is good enough for Solskjaer to make his case?
Top four? United were eight points behind Arsenal and Chelsea when the 45-year-old took over. The gap to Arsenal is down to three points, and the Red Devils finally made inroads against the fourth-placed Blues on Wednesday when Maurizio Sarri’s side drew against Southampton, leaving United just six points behind.
Making up an eight-point gap to Chelsea over half a season would certainly be an achievement for Solskjaer. Enough to convince the board to hire him long-term? Probably not.
FA Cup? A trophy would be nice, and would definitely be a feather in the former striker’s cap. Pochettino doesn’t have one of those, yet.
But when winning it in 2016 wasn’t enough to save Louis van Gaal’s job, it probably won’t be enough for Solskjaer, either, though the mood around the club would be different this time around.
Overturning a 19-point gap to arch-rivals Liverpool and winning the Premier League would guarantee his job safety. It’s also a miracle that isn’t going to happen.
Winning the Champions League would possibly be just as miraculous, but at least there’s some possibility it could happen. United look overmatched in their Round of 16 tie against Paris Saint-Germain. If Solskjaer can get his charges to pull off an upset against Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, and company, though, they’ll be in the quarter-finals, and then anything can happen.
Man Utd in the Premier League under Ole Gunnar Solskjær:— Squawka Football (@Squawka) January 2, 2019
🔴 4 games
🔴 4 wins
🔴 14 goals
Exactly what they wanted. pic.twitter.com/csmXaSU6Pa
Roberto di Matteo did do something similar in 2012, taking over when Chelsea were 3-1 down in their Round of 16 tie against Napoli. The side overturned the deficit, then beat Benfica, Barcelona and Bayern Munich en route to a historic triumph.
The parallels are there – Di Matteo was also a beloved Chelsea figure due to his playing career at the club. And if the similarities are clear, then there’s also a warning: the Italian did little for the Blues’ league campaign that season, as they finished sixth, and then was sacked just three months into the following season following a poor run of results.
But winning Europe’s biggest trophy would nonetheless make it impossible for United to move on from Solskjaer immediately after.
So, there’s the impossible task in front of the Norwegian. Win the Champions League, otherwise wait until we need a manager again.
Fortunately for him, Solskjaer has experience in producing European miracles.
Ander Herrera is not thinking about the top four despite Manchester United racking up a fourth straight win and finally picking up a clean sheet.
The decision to sack Jose Mourinho continues to pay dividends for the Old Trafford giants, with caretaker boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer matching Sir Matt Busby’s record of winning his first four league matches at the helm.
Substitute Romelu Lukaku and the sparkling Marcus Rashford did the damage in a 2-0 win at embattled Newcastle, cutting the gap to the Champions League spots down to six points.
United were an eye-watering 11 points off the pace when Mourinho was fired, but Herrera is not allowing his mind to wander from the here and now.
“When I saw we were maybe 12 points behind, I decided not to think about it, go game-by-game and that’s what we did,” the Spaniard told Press Association.
“That’s what I did at least, and things are going well, so I don’t want to change. I am not going to think about that.
“If we continue this run, we will be closer to the top four but it’s not something that kills my mind right now.
“(Newcastle) is not easy at all. I think we faced a very organised and very tough team.
“I think they’re going to stay in the Premier League for sure because I found them really, really tough. But we are in a good moment.
“Even when we are not playing great, we have the feeling that we can win the game.
“We control the game, we have the possession, we play in the opponent’s half and we have fantastic offensive players. Even the ones that were on the bench.
“For example, Romelu I think after 30 seconds he scored a goal or maybe less. Alexis (Sanchez) made a great assist, so I think we’re in really good form and we have to continue like this.
“This game is going to strengthen our bench players as well, Romelu and Alexis. We really need them so a lot of good things to take from today’s performance.
“But the next Premier League game is Tottenham and is going to be even tougher.”
The trip to Wembley certainly looks tough but United will head there on January 13 buoyed by just their third clean sheet of the Premier League campaign – a lack of shutouts that was grating on David De Gea, arguably the world’s best goalkeeper.
“Very important for David,” Herrera said with a smile.
“We wanted to make David happy because he was a little bit disappointed the last games.
“I had to cope with him after the game, killing my mind, telling me that he wanted a clean sheet and I’m happy for him as well because he got a clean sheet.”
De Gea is likely to be rested for Saturday’s FA Cup third-round clash against Championship strugglers Reading, just as Paul Pogba is expected to be.
The 25-year-old was marginalised by Mourinho but has started all four matches under Solskjaer, scoring and providing goals as well as making an impact off the field.
“He is very important for the club – (on) the pitch and out of the pitch as well,” Herrera said of Pogba, who limped out of St James’ Park on Wednesday after some rough treatment.
“He’s playing really, really well. Not only with the ball. I think as soon as we lose the ball he is ready to defend, ready to help the team.
“He is playing very simple and effective in our half, and then when he is in the opponent’s half he has that magic to change the game, so we are really happy for him.
“I think Nemanja (Matic) and me today, or the other players, we have to help him to make him feel free and that’s what we’re doing.”