In the aftermath of his team’s capitulation to Tottenham earlier this month, it was hardly surprising that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer decided changes were needed at Manchester United.
There was no shouting or screaming at the end of his worst day in football, a record-equalling 6-1 Premier League defeat at Old Trafford. Just a quiet realisation that there had to be a shake-up of formations and personnel.
Change was being forced on the United manager anyway. The unique demands of the 2020-21 season mean that Solskjaer could no longer lean so heavily on the same players and systems when the games come thick and fast.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s shake-up has helped Manchester United revive their ailing season
But he also realised it was time to be more flexible with his favoured formation and established first XI.
Aside from Eric Bailly, filling in for Victor Lindelof, the team thrashed by Spurs was the same go-to line-up that Solskjaer started in five of the nine league games after restart. In the other four fixtures, changes were kept to a minimum.
Paul Scholes said this week that the Tottenham game would have frightened the life out of his old teammate and he was probably right.
United suffered a heavy home defeat to Tottenham but have since pieced together a good run
‘I think any result as brutal as a 6-1 would have to get a response,’ Solskjaer acknowledged on Friday.
‘Of course, it has been dealt with internally. We’ve tweaked a couple of things, we’ve got players fit and I think the manner of that defeat wasn’t something we should ever have to be confronted with again.
‘Things happen in football these days but the response has been fantastic. That’s what I’m concerned about, because we wanted to finish that off as soon as we could and just move forward.’
That response has brought wins over Newcastle, Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig – scoring 11 goals in the process – as well as last weekend’s stalemate with Chelsea.
The response from the team has brought recent wins over Newcastle, PSG and now RB Leipzig
From going into the international break after the Tottenham debacle looking rather vulnerable, Solskjaer has come through a tough run of games in much better health ahead of Sunday’s meeting with Arsenal at Old Trafford.
There is still some way to go. United occupy 15th place in the early-season standings having failed to win any of their opening three league games at home for the first time in 38 years.
But it feels as though Solskjaer has significantly more strings to his bow as he marks his 100th game in charge.
More often than not, you used to be able to predict the formation and line-up. Now it’s much harder to say which United will show up.
Solskjaer will mark his 100th game in charge at Old Trafford and has more strings to his bow
On Wednesday night, Donny van de Beek impressed at the top of a midfield diamond against Leipzig with Paul Pogba more comfortable pushing forward on the left. A week earlier, Solskjaer dropped Axel Tuanzebe into a back-three and gave Alex Telles his debut as a left wing-back in Paris.
He stuck to his favourite 4-2-3-1 against Newcastle and Chelsea, but there are no guarantees he will do so again on Sunday. There are multiple options in defence and midfield, and Edinson Cavani now offers a different kind of threat in attack.
‘At the moment, we are looking like a Man United squad,’ said Solskjaer. ‘I’ve got opportunities and competition for places. Any successful team in the modern era have had that option to rest players, to rotate, and that is probably the only way you can last in the most intense league in the world.’
United versus Arsenal has always been intense but Solskjaer accepts it will feel different this weekend, the more so at an empty Old Trafford.
The days epitomised by Sir Alex Ferguson’s feud with Arsene Wenger, Roy Keane’s running battles with Patrick Vieira and flying pizza are sadly no more. ‘When I played, it was between us and Arsenal to win the league so that was a very fierce rivalry,’ added Solskjaer.
The United boss accepts the clash with Arsenal will take on a strange feel at an empty ground
‘There are all sorts of stories about what happened. That’s the passion, the excitement, the importance of those games.
‘We knew if we took six points off them that would be us winning the league, more or less, and vice versa.
‘Arsenal is always going to be difficult because they are a very good team with a very good manager who has got some great ideas on how football should be played.
‘I’m surprised it’s 100 games. Let’s hope I can celebrate with a good performance and result.’