At the end of a Premier League weekend which was defined by damaging results for under-pressure managers, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer went through the wringer in an unpredictable, see-sawing classic at Bramall Lane today.
The Manchester United manager veered from joining the pending P45 crew of Marco Silva, Unai Emery and Manuel Pellegrini at 2-0 down, to redemptive managerial masterclass territory at 3-2 up, before ending up back where he started as a principled but flawed youth promoter when the full-time whistle blew at 3-3.
In many ways the game told the story of United under Solskjaer: naive and disorganised defensively, yet with glimpses of exciting, sprightly potential in attack.
Their opponents largely resembled the side we have come to expect under Chris Wilder: organised, hard working and inventive. To see them allow the game to swing back in the away side’s favour by conceding three goals – more than in any other game this season – in a hectic seven-minute period was uncharacteristic.
As impressive as Solskjaer’s team were for a brief but profitable spell in the second half, they were every bit as bad in the first half.
Sheffield United started on the front foot and pummelled the visitors into submission, with possession coughed up frequently to allow the continuation of pressure.
Solskjaer’s decision to switch formation and play a five-man defence backfired spectacularly as the addition of Phil Jones was quickly regretted. Jones was substituted at half-time for the third time in his last five matches, but the damage had already been done when the centre-back was brushed off the ball by Lys Mousset in the build-up to John Fleck’s opener.
As bad as Jones was – and he was near the upper limits of the Jones calamity sliding scale – the away side’s midfield was almost worse. Andreas Pereira and Fred didn’t appear to be a workable duo on paper and sure enough they were dreadful in reality, giving away the ball in dangerous areas and drifting out of position with regularity. Pereira misplaced a whopping 24 passes in total, while Fred was nowhere to be seen when Mousset charged into wide open space and rifled in to make it 2-0.
Solskjaer will have been as delighted as onlookers were surprised by United’s revival, which had its roots in youth and a tactical rejig. Jones was jettisoned for Jesse Lingard at the break and the away side made hay in quick time. Brandon Williams’ sweetly-struck half-volley gave hope before substitute Mason Greenwood poked in Marcus Rashford’s curling cross to equalise.
Rashford finished off a flowing move involving Anthony Martial and Daniel James to make it 3-2 and ensure that three goals had been scored in seven minutes by players aged 19, 18 and 22.
But in such an open, end-to-end game it was nowhere near safe. Wilder’s decisions had a similar impact when Callum Robinson crossed for fellow substitute Oli McBurnie to volley in past David de Gea’s grasp.
“Sometimes football is beyond tactics,” Solskjaer offered post-match. But sometimes implementing them properly can prevent a helter-skelter 3-3 draw.
With Manchester United in ninth place, on four wins from 13 Premier League games, the Norwegian needs to settle on the right ones quickly.