There can be no doubt that Manchester United’s 2019/20 campaign reached a new low earlier this month after a horrific 3-1 home defeat to near neighbours Manchester City in the first leg semi-final of the Carabao Cup. It’s arguably United’s best chance of winning any silverware in 2020, but the Red Devils were blown away by half time thanks to a scintillating attacking display from Pep Guardiola’s men and some porous defending to say the least.
City found themselves three goals to the good by half time, with United failing to recover from Bernardo Silva’s early 17th minute opener. In the post-match press conference, Solskjaer said it was the worst first half performance of the season so far and admitted they have a “steep mountain to climb” to secure a place in the final on 29th February. It was the first time that a United side had let in three goals in the first 45 minutes since May 1997 against Middlesbrough – a game that ironically included Solskjaer.
Not only did this loss dismay the Old Trafford faithful, the result has also galvanised the Manchester City camp, after a stuttering start to 2019/20. Back in November, Oddschecker was already suggesting that City were out of the Premier League title race, but Guardiola’s men have regained their composure of late and are still battling on four fronts – the league, the Carabao and FA Cups and the Champions League.
Was the second half enough of a fightback?
The United players were understandably booed off at the half-time interval. Given that the midfield lacked intensity to press and harry their City rivals, the very least the United faithful expected was to see more fight in the second half. In truth, it was still a rather limp-wristed showing in the second 45, with City kicking back and seemingly content with their three-goal advantage. It tells you everything you need to know that City keeper, Claudio Bravo, did not have a genuine save to make prior to Marcus Rashford’s late consolation goal.
United’s shortcomings cruelly exposed by their bitter rivals
It was a game for United fans to grin and bear. All the pre-match build-up was positive and the team appeared well set to press City from the outset; the reality was that their city rivals were just too slick and sharp for them. As much as the United midfield wanted to get near the likes of Silva and De Bruyne, they simply couldn’t. The synergy between the City pair looks to be back on track, with Silva’s new-found free role seemingly giving the Portuguese a new level of confidence.
As for United, it genuinely wasn’t until an hour into the contest that the Reds had a sustained period of dominance, but City held firm. They were eventually unlocked by Marcus Rashford’s clinical finish, which further serves to underline his improvement in front of goal of late. The one crumb of comfort for Solskjaer and his side to take from the game is that they didn’t cave in completely. A two-goal deficit is repairable damage, if somewhat unlikely.
Such was the dominance of City in the first period that many United fans would have been forgiven for thinking they’d stepped into a time machine back to October 2011, when City inflicted United’s worst home defeat in the league since February 1955 with a 6-1 hammering. Being grateful for only being beaten 3-1 rather than 6-1 only serves to highlight the chasm between the two clubs at present.
Will the January transfer window provide respite for Solskjaer?
Solskjaer knows that his team is by no means the finished article. In fact, it’s going to take more than one transfer window for the Norwegian to mould the team in his style. A reported move for Sporting Lisbon midfielder Bruno Fernandes would certainly be a step in the right direction. A five-year contract is on the table for Fernandes, who has courted the attention of many of the best clubs in Europe for the last couple of seasons. Whether his £50m signing alone can give United the spark they need to push for a top four finish in the EPL remains to be seen.
There is no doubt that Fernandes could provide an added goal output from the United midfield. He has scored 13 goals in 20 games in the Portuguese top flight and Europa League so far this term, which is more than can be said of some of Solskjaer’s other midfield targets, James Maddison and Donny van de Beek. Maddison and Fernandes would be an interesting forward-thinking pairing in midfield, but it could be a partnership that’s too expensive even for United to pull off. Nevertheless, Solskjaer will hope that the addition of Fernandes will allows the likes of Rashford and Martial to play higher up the pitch and do their damage by playing on the shoulder of the last defender.
Was the 4-0 hammering of struggling Norwich an encouraging response?
It was vitally important that United got back their winning ways quickly to overcome their Carabao Cup disappointment. In truth, they could not have asked for a better opponent days later than bottom club Norwich City at Old Trafford. The hapless Canaries look destined for an immediate return to the Championship due to an inability to keep clean sheets. A clean sheet was out of the question here too as Rashford’s brace and a goal apiece for Martial and Greenwood eased United to a comfortable 4-0 victory.
Their second half showing was the most encouraging 45 minutes of football shown by a Solskjaer side in some time. The return to form of Spaniard Juan Mata was very evident, as were the mature performances from academy-grown Brandon Williams, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood. Solskjaer is someone that puts his faith in youth and understands that bringing through your own is part of the fabric of the club. Surely a long-term strategy is the only way for United to enjoy any sustained success in the future? We’ve already seen how a short-term appointment in José Mourinho can set the club back. Now is not the time to get itchy feet with our baby-faced assassin.