United push past Leicester to claw back into Champions League
Updated: Jul 31, 2020
It was always a question of what team would finish behind Kloop's energetic Liverpool, and Pep's City team of vibrant technicians. Many pundits refused to even consider the possibility that it could be Ole Gunnar Solskjær's rebuild project at Manchester United.
I told the boys that no matter what happened today, we've won. The players have shown their qualities as a group. They've taken on board what we want and they're looking more and more like a Manchester United team on the pitch. The environment there is so much better than it was before - Ole Gunnar Solskjær
To be fair Solskjær's team had dug themselves a wonderous hole. Yes, there were reasonable contributing factors, such as missing key contributors, that were mostly outside of his control, however the grand summation of these series of unfortunate events was a dreadful start to the season. It was a start so dire and unwanted, it won the ugly pageant of being the worst start in at least three decades. A formidable separation had taken hold, the distance between the red devils and Leicester City was an eye popping 15 points at one point.
United had to hit the restart button, the acquisition of the Sporting Lisbon skipper, Bruno Fernandes, a street wise mercurial talent, was just the spark the devils needed when they were running on fumes. The slender, quick thinking Portuguese ignited the team in lieu of the injured Pogba, and the results started to swing United's way. Then came the daunting task of chasing down the teams at the top. United had to go on, and maintain, a furious run just to catch up, while building on their goal difference - the importance of which, by all accounts, was hammered into Ole by Alex Ferguson himself. It ultimately paid off.
Solskjær's devils rode their rocket full blast, small wonder why the United team looked utterly spent in the last matches. Fatigue is the greatest predator of concentration, you could plainly see the weariness take hold and team sharpness dull away. Fundamental mistakes and sloppiness found fresh haunting ground in the team. Ole's over reliance on a stable first team meant former lieutenants like Mctominay and Fred were frozen out, resulting in a lack of match fitness, and thus could not be counted upon as reliable reinforcements at critical junctures of the run-in even though they made cameos.
So after zipping back up the table, the high speed chase was still in danger of ending with the devils careening off the cliff on an empty tank. The visit to the King Power stadium was always going to be an exercise in resilience. The United backline, which had just recently been thrust into turmoil by the shaky displays of Harry Maguire, a fading warrior who had withstood and had been present for every second of this furious campaign, and David De Gea whose detiorating concentration level between the posts had fans frantically reaching for the defcon one button.
Brendan Rodgers had his team well setup to deny United spaces in the middle. They flooded the middle of the pitch, and double teamed Paul Pogba, triple teamed the Frenchman at times, denying him time and space to dispatch his duties as a deeplying playmaker. His creative partner, Fernandes, fared no better, sloppy giveaways made for a disjointed effort further up the field. Matic was instructed to slot into the back four, exacerbating the issue with lack of numbers in the midfield. The team seemed nervous, if not unsure. But they stuck in there, bending to the relentless pressure Leicester brought upon them without breaking.
The twin towers, United old boy Johnny Evans, once considered a future captain at Old Trafford, and his stocky partner, Wes Morgan, were always going to be vulnerable to pace. Eventually it broke the dam, the fleet footed Martial baited them to commit a foul in the box as he rushed towards goal. Fernandes hop stepped his way to the crucial goal from the penalty spot after the obligatory VAR review. United needed to calm the nerves, that goal was the medicine needed. Jesse Lingard, determined not to end the season barren, harried and hassled Kasper Schmeichel into an error, he nicked the ball away and slotted the second goal.
Manchester United had finally caught up and passed both Leicester and Chelsea, from a daunting 13th position to 3rd, successfully gate crashing the European party. Solskjær was quick to point out the duality at play. He stressed this was a success for certain, but more importantly, it is a stepping stone to hopefully greater heights. Ole has by all measures delivered for the club in his first full season in charge, it's now up to the club to bankroll his vision to sustain the gains made this season. Dithering in the market, and missing identified top targets could be a recipe for regression. As the club now focuses on their Europa League campaign with reduced pressure to win it outright, fans frantically demand and expect a sustained progression. A multitude of side eyes now shift uneasily but firmly on Ed Woodward and Matt Judge.