They’re back, baby, they’re back. Back with a whimper perhaps, at the end of an edgy, sluggish, winning performance at the King Power Stadium. But Manchester United are back in the Champions League all the same, fourth place secured with a slow-burn 2-0 defeat of Leicester City.
This being planet Earth in the year 2020, it came in the strangest of circumstances. Seven minutes into injury time on a muggy late-July day Jesse Lingard could be seen rolling the ball into an empty net in front of a row of inspirational tarpaulins.
Moments later the final whistle euthanised this distended league season out of existence. It was greeted by shouts and shrieks from the scattered United staff, and by the sight of the accidental saviour Ole Gunnar Solskjær bowling out on to the pitch looking wide-eyed and very slightly overcome in his skinny black suit and white shirt.
Eleven months, one global shutdown and an economic collapse in the making, the news is at least reassuringly samey from the Premier League. The four wealthiest clubs in England will now take up those four spots and compete in the world’s glitziest midweek league. The teams who are usually the teams are once again the teams. Dissent, unrest and social revolution may come and go, but the Premier League remains, for now, largely unmoved.
There was still an element of genuine jeopardy here, not least for Solskjær himself. Rarely has the line between over-promoted company man and curator of the thrilling new red dawn seemed so fine. But such are the margins at times. Football may be theatre. But nobody ever said it was subtle theatre.
To his credit Solskjær played all his strongest cards from the start. Rightly so, as there has been tangible progress on the pitch in the last few months. Pogba-Fernandes-Matic is the most engaging midfield United have had since the Ferguson endgame. Rashford-Martial has become a potent partnership. Mason Greenwood is that rare thing, a genuine, believe-the-hype prodigy of the kind that speaks in direct, seductive tones to United’s own self-mythologising.
Still, there was an awkwardness to the occasion as Leicester sat deep in the opening moments and allowed United’s passing to stall in front of them. The gameplan seemed clear enough: wait for the mistake, counterattack at speed. Harry Maguire has many qualities as a defender but he also turns like a waterlogged fishing dinghy and runs toward his own goal with all the easy grace of a heavily laden suburban milk float.
For a while the game was scrappy. Occasionally United’s bravura front three clicked into motion, then seemed to lose their timing, like men communicating via a low-bandwidth internet conference call. In the past three months Marcus Rashford has played 10 games and organised a policy-changing child welfare campaign. He is probably allowed to feel a little tired.
Paul Pogba was prominent but never quite in the command seat. Bruno Fernandes was poor, as he has been occasionally; a midfielder hoist as a panacea to successive seasons of incoherent squad-building, and now already facing a world record new-signing backlash. Football has always been a skittish, impatient business, but Fernandes has barely finished holding up the shirt and grinning beneath a scarf.
By half-time there was still a sense of the day waiting to take shape. Finally, with 67 minutes gone, a kind of deliverance arrived. The impressive Hamza Choudhury gave the ball away. Greenwood played a cute, instant forward pass, a rare act of precision in a sea of vagueness. Anthony Martial was brought down by a double judo-trip move from Wes Morgan and Jonny Evans.
Up stepped the leg-weary Fernandes. On the bench Solskjær looked like a man trying very hard not to vomit over the deck-rail. The kick was tucked gently into the corner. And that was pretty much that, as Leicester’s endless season, not to their mention six missing first-team players, finally caught up with them.
What does it all mean? There is of course a degree of confected tension about all this. But even for a club of such enduring heft a return to the Champions League will affect every aspect of Manchester united.
For Solskjær this is now a mini-era in its own right: if not a new dawn, then at least a first chink of light beneath the curtain. And it is worth being kind here. Despite the anxieties of the last three games there has been a genuine vim and snap about United’s attacking play of late.
Not to mention a rare sense of clarity. If there is little remarkable in Solskjær’s management, this is a virtue in itself. United’s manager has one outstanding quality: his lack of any obvious outstanding qualities, a simplicity that is in itself a very useful asset.
Let’s face it, this vast sporting machine doesn’t actually need any additional fuel, any complex characters or interfering egos. At times something it just needs to be steered in the right direction, to be demystified and untangled rather than overthought.
Solskjær has imposed a simple system and made some demands about fitness. United’s zany playing squad has been clarified. The best players tend to end up on the pitch. Half of the outfield 10 were Solskjær players to some degree. Two thirds of a decent team is in place here. Better still, this feels like something else. For all the wariness of the King Power in late July, there is hope here – not to mention, for the first time in some time, a sense of lightness too.
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