On December 16th 2018, Manchester United lost 3-1 to rivals Liverpool at Anfield. Sadio Mane took the lead early on but Jesse Lingard struck back within minutes. The home side were the better team, boasting an incredible 36 shots to United’s six, but in the end relied on two deflected shots from substitute Xherdan Shaqiri to win them the game, and return his team to the top of the table.
This was the biggest scoreline Liverpool had ever beaten United by at home in the Premier League and the difference between the two sides, 19 points on that day, was painful for our fans.
Two days later, Mourinho was called in to a meeting with Ed Woodward, believing he had been invited to discuss potential transfer targets for the January transfer window, but left with his P45 and what would become a £15m pay out. Had United not extended his contract, which was due to expire this summer, in the January, his compensation would have been a fraction of this.
You have to question the decision making at the top of the club on so many levels, but no decision was more baffling than offering him a new deal last January. When you consider the club had seemingly lost faith in him by the summer (if the fact we’ve been outspent by the likes of Everton and Bournemouth this season, as well as Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and City, is anything to go by) the decision is all the more confusing.
Mourinho had publicly flirted with PSG, talking up what a great city Paris was, and the club panicked. The manager had won two trophies in his first season and went on to finish second last season. Both of these are achievements that Jurgen Klopp has yet to emulate in almost four years at Liverpool (even if one or both is set to change this season), so there’s some understanding as to why United wanted to keep Mourinho. But the atmosphere behind the scenes was turning and it appeared as though the club knew before the start of this season that they were going to get rid of him, sooner or later.
United were in desperate need to strengthen the squad if they were going to challenge for the title. In response, we signed a 35-year-old third-choice goalkeeper, a teenage right-back nobody had heard of who is yet to even make his international debut, and Fred. The latter came at a cost of £47m, a huge fee when considering how little return we’ve had from him, but even if he was as good as his price-tag suggested, he wouldn’t have been enough to compete with our rivals. In the past two years, Liverpool have spent over £300m on nine players, while City have spent over £350m on 15 players. In contrast, United have just just over £200m on seven players.
It’s impossible to know conclusively what the impact of this lack of spending had on Mourinho and the squad, but the message was loud and clear. Mourinho was fed up and that was apparent from all his dealings with the media from the pre-season onwards. The players had grown tired of his methods and his attitude, and were more or less told that this manager wasn’t for the long-term when he wasn’t trusted to land his transfer targets, which probably contributed to their lack of enthusiasm.
What was as impressive as it was surprising, is the club didn’t wait until top four was a total impossibility (despite Mourinho claiming a “miracle” would be needed for us to qualify for the Champions League next season) and sacked Mourinho two days after the Liverpool defeat.
All sorts of names were bandied about for his potential replacement, from Zinedine Zidane to Laurent Blanc, Leonardo Jardim to Gareth Southgate. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had been mentioned but it was a still a shock when he was appointed. Despite his great success in Norway, the most obvious reference point for many was the bad job he did in worse circumstances at Cardiff, which saw him sacked after a few months in charge, so, despite his United link, it had been hard to imagine the club would opt for him.
But they did.
And thank God they did.
United have played 13 games in all competitions since the defeat at Anfield, winning 11, drawing one and losing one. Among those victories are away wins at Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal.
Solskjaer has been a revelation. The football is good to watch, the best players are performing well and the whole squad looks happy. The doom and gloom that has surrounded us since it started to go badly wrong for Moyes (roughly within the first 10 games of his tenure) has been lifted.
We went to Anfield two months ago hoping not to receive a battering. It’s hard to believe it was so recently, given how much has changed at the club since. We’re going in to Sunday’s game with the hope and belief we can get a win and dent their title hopes.
In his Friday press conference, Solskjaer was asked if he felt proud at how much he had turned around the mentality of the fans in such a short space of time.
“It’s not about pride,” he said. “It’s about the fact we’ve taken a few steps in the right direction in that process of becoming what we want to become. A team that challenges higher up the league. It’s not about pride, it’s onto the next one. I never look back, I want to see forward.”
Every game is described as “the real test” for Solskjaer. First it was Spurs, then Arsenal, then PSG, then Chelsea. He’s largely come out of these games well, with some excuses for the defeat against the French side provided by his game plan going out of the window at half-time when Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial got injured. Before then, David de Gea hadn’t been called upon to make a single save. We were second best in the second half and deserved to lose, even if, as Solskjaer pointed out on Friday, PSG should have been reduced to 10 men when the scoreline was still 0-0.
“We have to perform better than we did against PSG,” admitted Solskjaer. “That’s our focus. It’s a big game, a big team. Suddenly we are not underdogs any more, suddenly people praise us, they think now is the time to play them. We’ve got to learn from that experience against PSG because we didn’t perform to the level that we wanted to.”
That game provided us with the opportunity to learn and sharpen up. When facing good teams, we’ve got to be at our best, and the players will be desperate to avoid feeling how they felt when the final whistle blew against PSG.
“We’ve just got to make sure we stay focused for the whole game,” Solskjaer reflected. “All these games are decided on little margins. That one centimetre that Mbappe was in front of Eric and he scored, instead of Eric clearing it. That is the deciding factor in these big games.”
Klopp has had his fair share of tests too and has done well. Liverpool have beaten the likes of Spurs, PSG and Arsenal this season, as they stand second in the table, but they haven’t had it all their own way in big games.
They drew against City at Anfield, thanks to Riyad Mahrez missing a late penalty, they lost at home against Chelsea in the League Cup before drawing against them in the league. They were held to a 1-1 draw at the Emirates, as well as losing to City and PSG away. They held Bayern to a 0-0 draw at home this week, but it’s worth remembering the German side aren’t as strong as they were in the past, with them currently sitting second in the league, five points clear of third-placed Monchengladbach.
The most telling of all these games was Liverpool’s defeat at the Etihad though. Had they won that game at the turn of the year they would have gone 10 points clear and the title would have more or less been in the bag. After the game, Klopp claimed that his team had been “unluckier” than their opponents in front of goal, but the truth is they were beaten by the better team. As the weeks have gone by, City have clawed back the gap, and are now on equal points, having played a game more.
This is not an unbeatable team United are facing. Liverpool have won six of the 11 games they’ve played since beating us, drawn three (against Leicester, West Brom and Bayern) and lost two (against City and Wolves).
United have a real opportunity to show what they’re made of and get a result against our hated rivals. Of course the added bonus of taking three points off them as they try to win their first title in 29 years is apparent, but the focus has to be on ourselves. While our form has been great, we’re still only one point ahead of both Arsenal and Chelsea, so are in need of the three points to try and create some breathing room.
Paul Pogba will be called upon to play an important role in us dominating the game and getting a result.
“In his mould I don’t think there’s no one near,” Solskjaer claimed, when asked whether Pogba the best midfielder in the world.
While Martial has made a speedy a recovery, and Lingard is a possibility, Pogba’s influence when he’s on top form is unmatched. While there have been some big games he has shown up for, he’s often played a peripheral part during the toughest fixtures in his two and a half years at the club. We can point the finger at Mourinho for that, whether it was down to his tactics or the breakdown in their relationship, but Pogba has to shoulder some responsibility too.
We’ve seen a change since Ole was appointed though. It was his run and powerful shot that lead to Martial’s goal at the Emirates. It was his vision and brilliantly executed pass that lead to Rashford’s goal at Wembley against Spurs. Then it was his inch perfect assist for Ander Herrera at Stamford Bridge, before scoring a goal himself. Add to that all the other goals and assists he’s picked up in other games. For the season, he has 14 goals and 10 assists in all competitions.
It’s not all about Pogba, of course, but as a graduate of our academy, he will understand the rivalry better than most, and has the ability to be a game changer. Ander Herrera, who Solskjaer called a “leader” in his press conference, and who has so much “passion, energy and enthusiasm” will also likely have a key role to play. If Rashford could bag another couple of goals, as he did in this fixture last season, that would obviously also be welcomed. And if ever we needed our defence to show up, it’s tomorrow. Victor Lindelof has been the stand out performer at the back but all four of the backline will need to be at their best to keep out Salah, Mane, Firmino and co.
Sunday is a huge game and whatever happens, it’ll be comforting to know we’ve gone in to it prepared to play the game our way. We will attack them. We will believe we can win. And here’s hoping that we do!