Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was the expert executioner as a player. He displayed the same traits as a manager last week, finishing off Nuno Espirito Santo when defeat at Tottenham might have come with considerable consequences to Solskjaer himself.
The Norwegian is playing games of football and brinkmanship alike and Saturday's Manchester derby has the potential to prove the endgame for Solskjaer. Or, instead, part of the bemusing, beguiling drama of the never-ending Manchester United soap opera.
Solskjaer’s last visit to his beloved Old Trafford saw it empty early. For the first time in Premier League history, United were 4-0 down at half-time. For the first ever at Old Trafford, they lost 5-0 to Liverpool.
If it was a match that seemed to underline the sense that Solskjaer is not a world-class manager, his record shows that he can defeat them. His total of four wins against Pep Guardiola is bettered only by Jurgen Klopp and Jose Mourinho.
Solskjaer is the lone manager to have faced Guardiola at least four times and won more than he has lost. When City won 21 consecutive games last winter, their run was ended by United. Old Trafford is the scene of eight City victories in little more than 10 years, but also of a defeat to Solskjaer’s United in March 2020.
The counter-attacking blueprint that, for some, has summed his limitations has served him well against City. But so has defending of a calibre United have rarely mustered of late. United have four clean sheets in their last five derbies. They only have two in their 24 most recent games in all competitions.
They denied Tottenham a shot on target, let alone a goal, last Saturday but that was with Raphael Varane in imperious form. Then the summer signing hobbled off against Atalanta on Tuesday.
Misfortune or mismanagement? A criticism of Solskjaer is that he can overplay his talismen. Varane, just back from injury, is sidelined again. Harry Maguire, rushed back from injury against Leicester, has been in awful form since then, looking semi-fit. United have only lost one of the six games Varane has started and four of the last five he has missed. Eric Bailly, who constituted a one-man defence at times in Italy, has gone from fringe figure to pivotal, especially with Victor Lindelof a doubt.
United’s rearguard face the question of how to halt Phil Foden. Guardiola’s City have prospered at Old Trafford courtesy of elusive false nines. A past ploy is likely to be revived.
An all-time great is set to face City for the first time in a derby since 2009. Cristiano Ronaldo’s injury-time equaliser against Atalanta was a 798th goal of an extraordinary career. “They have one of the best players in history, a guy who can be a scoring machine," said Guardiola.
He is indelibly associated with Lionel Messi, Ronaldo’s great rival. For them, this is Real Madrid against Barcelona, but transported to Manchester. It is given still more spice by the surreal 24 hours in August when it seemed Ronaldo might join City, before instead returning to their neighbours.
It is Guardiola’s first meeting with an old foe since the Portuguese scored twice in Real’s 2014 Champions League semi-final thrashing of Bayern Munich. Go back further and Ronaldo scored six times in Clasicos against Guardiola’s Barcelona. But he also suffered a 5-0 defeat, the joint heaviest of his career – along with Liverpool’s October visit.
Solskjaer likes to invoke the distant past, but more recent history forms the immediate context to the 186th Manchester derby. It is why Solskjaer remains in a battle to ensure it is not his last.