The post-Jose Mourinho era continued with a fifth successive win on Saturday afternoon, when Juan Mata’s spot-kick was followed by a composed Romelu Lukaku finish in the first half of their third-round tie.
The 2-0 victory against Reading secured Solskjaer’s place in the United history books, yet it was their most unconvincing display to date.
The decision to make nine changes saw the home side toil against the well-drilled Royals and the Norwegian held his hands up afterwards.
“It was always going be difficult with my team selection,” interim boss Solskjaer said.
“I made it hard for the players to be fair on them because it’s a team that’s never played together.
“Some players like Matteo (Darmian) played out of position but I thought he was excellent. Reading made it really difficult for us.
“We never had a kick the first five minutes, they just kept possession and we weren’t cohesive enough in the pressing.
“That happens when you don’t have a team that doesn’t plays together as much. We didn’t have too much time to work.
“The pleasing thing is we’re through and it’s another clean sheet. 2-0 flatters us because I think they played some great stuff, then again we could have had three or four towards the end.
“The second goal was excellent with Alexis (Sanchez) getting Romelu in. Individual quality managed to get us through.”
It didn't go unnoticed with Ole, either...— Manchester United (@ManUtd) January 5, 2019
"Where's his shorts?!" 🤣 pic.twitter.com/8SlyOZzOpG
The video assistant referee’s intervention led to the opening goal from Mata, although the lengthy delay and lack of communication inside Old Trafford highlighted the issues that still need resolving.
“From where I sat it was a clear penalty, so I didn’t need VAR there,” Solskjaer said.
“But then they were probably checking if it was offside or not, probably was. Well done by Juan, he gets the ball down and the penalty was well struck.
Solskjaer’s squad hot-footed it to the airport after the game, with the side heading to Dubai for a warm-weather training camp ahead of next Sunday’s return to Premier League action at Tottenham.
Sanchez will need treatment ahead of the trip to Wembley, with the forward’s first start under the Norwegian ending with a hamstring issue flaring up.
“How was Alexis? Hopefully OK,” he said.
“He was feeling his hamstring, but he should have told me one minute before because I made two subs. Hopefully he’ll be OK for next weekend.
“I think maybe he’s happy that he got through 60 minutes. Hopefully he won’t be too bad.
“He’s been out a month now, he’s had 20 minutes against Newcastle, half an hour maybe. Now he’s had 60 minutes, so it’s about building up again.
“You know the quality he has. I think maybe when he gets another few games under his belt, he would have finished a little bit earlier on in the first half.
“He had one touch too many, could have finished when he was driving through the box, so he’ll be fine.”
Confirmed. Fantastic pass from Sanchez. It has felt like the Chilean has not even been @ManUtd at times due to lack of impact over last 12 months but if he can reproduce Arsenal form, he would be a big 'addition'.— Simon Stone (@sistoney67) January 5, 2019
While United continue to fight on three fronts, Reading can now focus on their relegation scrap with renewed confidence.
“Looking to the performance, I am very proud of what my players did today,” recently-appointed manager Jose Gomes, looking for his first win, said.
“They showed courage to put our process on the pitch. They press very high, they recovered balls in the offensive midfield. They created goal situations.
“It’s not easy to come from the situation that we are in and show the intensity and courage, and good ideas, positive ideas, positive football.
“So, we should I think have more than double than Man United.
“We get 61 per cent of ball possession. We have four, five corners, they have just one, so we produce.
“Performance but the result is not the same. We didn’t show what we produce.
“It means that it is missing in my team like a killer instinct.”
Juan Mata, from the penalty spot, and Romelu Lukaku got the goals as United ground out a victory despite a sub-par display.
Here’s a look at how the players fared.
Sergio Romero 8 – Romero actually had more saves to make than his opposite number, and did so with aplomb, keeping Reading out with some excellent saves.
Diogo Dalot 7 – Some of his crossing was disappointing given his reputation, but he provided an attacking threat and stood up well defensively, though he was caught out of position at times.
Matteo Darmian 7 – Playing in a back two rather than a back three, Darmian showed his versatility, looking solid as United kept a second straight clean sheet.
Phil Jones 8 – Not only a mistake-free display, but a genuinely composed and commanding performance from Phil Jones.
Ashley Young 7 – Good defensively and going forward, denied an assist only thanks to a poor finish from Marouane Fellaini after an enterprising run from the United captain.
Scott McTominay 7 – Solid defensively, breaking up Reading’s passing play and providing an extra presence in the box when needed. Offered little on the ball, perhaps an indicator of the sort of player he’ll be in the future.
Fred 6 – Struggled at times to keep United in control of the game and serve as a midfield anchor, though some of his passing was crisp and penetrating.
Andreas Pereira 6 – Gave away the ball too easily, contributing to a sloppy performance in general from United. His defensive work was at least up to scratch.
Juan Mata 7 – Won and converted a penalty and on occasion his typical incisive passing was on display.
Romelu Lukaku 8 – A goal for the third consecutive game – Lukaku hasn’t been on a scoring run like this since March. Given the way he rounded the keeper to score, it seems the Belgian’s confidence is back.
Alexis Sanchez 8 – Two assists in two appearances under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, only the second time he’s had assists in consecutive games during his short United career. Worrying that he went off with a knock.
Tahith Chong 6 – Showed flashes of his skill and pace, but also misplaced a few passes and was at times not on the same wavelength as his team-mates. An uneventful, though popular, debut.
Marouane Fellaini 5 – Should have made it 3-0, producing a tame shot straight at the goalkeeper from barely five yards out after being set up by Young. Provided his usual defensive solidity.
Marcus Rashford 6 – Missed a glorious chance to score right at the end, rounding the keeper but then losing the ball and slipping trying to keep control.
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.