The third year of Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer began with two late goals to clinch a Cup match. A fitting scenario. It’s the Solskjaer trademark.
Sometimes, it can seem like the only Solskjaer trademark to those who wonder if the Norwegian reached the position of United manager and remains in it largely for the enduring aura of his heroic moment as a United striker late on in a vital Cup game, a Champions League final, 21 years ago.
Wednesday's win over Everton in the League Cup quarter-final was not so dramatic though it did carry enough suspense that a penalty shoot-out was anticipated, until Edinson Cavani took on the Teddy Sheringham role – the veteran who strikes with time running out – and Anthony Martial played the Solskjaer part, the supersub whose alertness puts the outcome beyond doubt in injury time.
There have been more nail-biting games in the age of United under Solskjaer, most famously at Paris Saint-Germain, when a two-goal deficit was reversed in the manager’s first tie in the Champions League, via a last-gasp winner from the penalty spot.
That stunning 3-1 victory in France led Solskjaer over the bridge between caretaker – the job he initially took on December 22, 2018 after Jose Mourinho had been sacked – and permanent appointment, the position he will hold into 2021. Put bluntly, the audition went better than the 22 months after he was offered a three-year contract. Ole as interim won 14 of 19 matches; Solskjaer the-more-secure has won 50 of the 93 matches since.
But that’s just one way of measuring the success of a manager who divides opinion, just as each of his predecessors – Mourinho, Van Gaal, David Moyes – in the difficult post-Alex Ferguson epoch have. Solskjaer has now well outlasted Moyes and Van Gaal for time in charge, and, if United put together significant runs in Europe and the FA Cup over the rest of the season and he is still in charge at the end of it, he will have overseen more matches than Mourinho’s 144.
It is also technically possible Solskjaer’s United could roar into the new year at the summit of the Premier League, although that would take a combination of their beating Leicester City on Saturday and Wolverhampton Wanderers three days later, while leaders Liverpool collect nothing from fixtures against West Bromwich and Newcastle United. What Solskjaer can do is breathe ever heavily down the reigning champions’ neck. Win at Leicester and United would move to second, within two points of Liverpool.
Everton v Manchester United player ratings
Solskjaer has been adept at getting United to podium positions, though not yet to gold-medal ones and his glee at the manner of victory at Everton, with a starting XI featuring nine changes from the 6-2 win against Leeds last weekend, was tempered by the news United must meet Manchester City, the holders, in the League Cup semi-final.
City knocked United out at that stage last year, in a season that had United reaching the semi-final of the Europa League, the FA Cup and the League Cup and finishing third in the Premier League. Bronze medal positions may represent an uplift on some of the rankings United have found attached to them since Ferguson retired in 2013, but they are not what the club targets.
Nor do United relish finishing 17th in club football's most prestigious competition. Defeat at RB Leipzig two weeks ago, the result that meant relegation from the group phase of the Champions League into the Europa League is perhaps the heaviest blemish on Solskjaer's 2020, far more damaging than, say, the startling 6-1 loss to Mourinho's Tottenham Hotspur in October. In this, the least forecastable of seasons, heavy defeats litter the records of some of the best-prepared clubs.
With Solskjaer’s United, they represent dips on a graph of sometimes relentless inconsistency. Even his compatriots, rooting for Solskjaer, find the highs and lows puzzling.
“It’s exhausting because it just changes all the time - he’s doing well then two weeks later they lose and he’s ‘on his way’," Solskjaer’s former Norway international teammate Erik Thorstvedt told the BBC. “There’s a sense of pride here [in Norway] because he’s Norwegian and boss of one of the biggest clubs but even among Man United supporters here, there’s been mixed feelings.
“But at the moment Ole’s doing really well, he’s recruited well and they are on the right track. They are a title candidate. It’s not unthinkable United could win the Premier League.”