The last time a Manchester United manager lost back-to-back games, Jose Mourinho was shown the door. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will not suffer the same fate – until May at least – but defeats to Arsenal and Wolverhampton Wanderers require pause for thought.
Questions must be asked, too. How much is this a genuine drop in form? How much is down to fatigue? Will it get better after the international break? In short: should Manchester United fans be worrying?
By now, if you’re partial to frequenting social media, it’s likely you’ve seen people questioning whether Solskjær should be given the job permanently based on expected goals.
The most outlandish examples even suggest the Norwegian should pass up the opportunity of being Manchester United manager beyond this season in case he’s simply been lucky.
Manchester United consistely getting results despite opponents having equal or better chances is setting the stage for a fascinating turn of events.
Ole would be smart to turn down the job of regular manager & have this unlikely spell define his reputationhttps://t.co/7ZvBmkS8sq
— 11tegen11 (@11tegen11) February 28, 2019
Now, it’s fair to highlight United have had a fair slice of good fortune under Solskjaer. Or, perhaps more accurately, haven’t had too much bad fortune.
But in the Premier League, Solskjær has undoubtedly strengthened the Red Devils. Under Mourinho, United’s expected goals value was better than their opponents (+0.14 per game) but Solskjær has improved that to +0.51.
It’s a significant jump, one that would make United the top flight’s third-best team – although it’s not one that would keep up their current title-challenging pace.
It’s a comfort for United that, despite a schedule that is getting gradually more difficult after a pleasant start, their league numbers keep trending upwards. This suggests that Solskjær’s magic isn’t wearing off just yet.
There was some suspicion, when the United legend first took over, that his ‘new manager bounce’ was just the result of the players being happy at the change of atmosphere around the training ground. A positive atmosphere is good, of course, but it leaves questions about what a manager does when it wears off.
Either this positivity isn’t wearing off — in which case Solskjær has managed to keep it around for three months — or there’s something significant, but not entirely tangible, beneath it that’s helping to drive United’s performances.
So, nothing to worry about? Well, Solskjær himself was unhappy with the performance against Wolves, pointing to a lack of urgency in possession.
“Last week [at Arsenal], we were happy with the performance,” he said. ” Today, we didn’t have the urgency or the quality on the ball. I felt, without the ball, we did okay in the first half but the tempo on the ball wasn’t high enough.”
One could quite easily point to fixture congestion and fitness concerns as reasons why United’s tempo wasn’t as high as usual against Wolves. The international break probably comes at a good time.
But Nuno’s side, without the ball, sit deep, soak up pressure and counter through the dynamic Diogo Jota and Raúl Jiménez. In that respect, Wolves’ success may begin a trend of opposition sides limiting space when they take on Manchester United.
That would be a concern because there isn’t much of an indication that United are any better in a set, non-counterattacking spell of possession under Solskjær than Mourinho.
The Norwegian’s message to his players, though, is just about being happy and rested.
“To the players who go away with international teams, go and enjoy, go and play as well as you can,” he said. “Some of them have been called back into a squad, maybe that gives them a boost, but we just need to come back recharged.
“Whatever you are doing, if you have days off, or play with the national team, come back with a big smile, loads of energy and be ready for the league and Champions League.”
Are cracks starting to show in Solskjær’s empire? It doesn’t seem so. More likely the defeats are down to a combination of fatigue and the normal balance of good and bad luck returning to Old Trafford.
United aren’t week in, week out world-beaters under Solskjær. But they remain a lot better than they were.