MANCHESTER, England — Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is saying all the right things about pushing Manchester City to the wire, but he would be forgiven if he doesn’t even believe it himself. Manchester United are back up to second in the Premier League table after a 3-1 win over Newcastle on Sunday, but with City making it 18 consecutive wins at Arsenal earlier on Sunday, the odds-makers give Solskjaer’s team less than a one percent chance of winning the title.
To put it into context, the experts believe there’s an equal probability of them being relegated instead.
United have plenty left to play for this season and a trophy in either the FA Cup or Europa League would put a gloss on a campaign during which Solskjaer can already confidently point to progress. But Solskjaer’s task over the summer is how to get closer to City; between now and then, his players are playing for their place in the squad for what the Norwegian hopes will be the next step forward.
Newcastle, meanwhile, are going in the other direction and an eighth defeat from their last 10 games left them just three points above the relegation places, piling more pressure on Steve Bruce. For Solskjaer, it was a positive end to a day that began with an announcement that Nicky Butt and Mark Dempsey would be required on the bench after a number of his staff were forced to self-isolate in line with COVID-19 protocols.
“We’ve got good staff elsewhere,” said Solskjaer afterwards. “Of course, it was a different preparation for the boys, but that’s the situation we are in. We have to be ready.
“In the first half, even though we had most of the possession, we didn’t create enough. We had to step it up and we did in the second half.
“I’m never going to say [the title race] is done until it’s done, you’ve seen so many examples of teams that just hang in there, keep working, do their own job and something might happen. It’s not something we think about — we think about our own performances and our own games, that’s the only thing we can control. We have loads to play for and improve on.”
Solskjaer will back his core of young players — namely Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, Scott McTominay and Aaron Wan-Bissaka — to get better and better, helped by his established senior players like Bruno Fernandes and captain Harry Maguire. But conversations have already taken place between Solskjaer and his recruitment team about a plan for the summer transfer window, and the players already here have got three months to prove their positions are not in need of upgrades.
Club chiefs have not tried to hide the fact that the coronavirus pandemic, which has stopped supporters attending games at Old Trafford for almost a year, have affected the finances, but executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward and the Glazers will still make money available for transfers. The question now is how Solskjaer uses it. There will be no major overhaul because he prefers a gradual turnover of players, but as he approaches his two-year anniversary as permanent manager, the focus has to be how he ends the wait for a title.
Ask United fans what the team needs and you’ll find several willing arguments that everywhere from centre-back to centre forward should be the priority, which shows the scale of the task, and it will be Solskjaer’s job to decide on the positions most in need of fresh faces.
Watching on Sunday, Solskjaer will not have been happy to see his team concede from a speculative cross into the box that allowed Allan Saint-Maximin to briefly make it 1-1. It was the 32nd league goal they have shipped this season, the same as Fulham in 18th. At the other end, Anthony Martial’s struggles as first-choice striker continued until he was replaced 20 minutes from time. After getting 17 league goals last season, the Frenchman has managed just four this term, two of which came in the 9-0 win over Southampton.
There’s no doubt about Rashford’s place in Solskjaer’s plans, but the England forward had a far more productive night, scoring the first goal with a terrific run and thumping finish before his close touch and quick feet won a penalty for Fernandes to score his 22nd goal of the season. In between, Dan James scored his sixth goal in his last nine appearances for club and country and his third in as many games for United.
James, the 23-year-old winger, has had to be patient this season, but he is vindicating Solskjaer’s decision to reject loan offers from Leeds United last summer and in January. Back in the team, James has taken his opportunity to show he deserves to stay long-term. Others may not be so lucky.
“Dan is working hard, he is a great boy in and around the place,” said Solskjaer, who also handed a debut to 17-year-old academy graduate Shola Shoretire. “He knows he has been very close a few times. When you score the amount of goals he has at the moment confidence must be sky high.
“Dan with the energy he has, the X-factor and the pace, he gives us something that must be hard to play against if you are a defender. It’s been a very good week for him.”