’It is certainly not a conspiracy theory to suggest that United appeared fearful of overcommitting here.
‘They actually seemed content with the point, acknowledging that they have no chance of chasing Manchester City, failing to go for it with all the old adrenaline and élan.
‘They are clearly focused far more on securing their Champions League ticket, on checking on those below them.
‘With Leicester City and West Ham United losing, Solskjaer and his players knew that stifling fifth-placed Chelsea simply strengthened their position in second. Job done.’
These are the words of one of Britain’s top football writers, Henry Winter, in The Times, about Manchester United’s 0-0 draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge yesterday.
The Red Devils have failed to beat any other big six side in the Premier League this season in seven attempts and have only scored one goal – in the first of those encounters – a Bruno Fernandes penalty in the second minute against Spurs, a match they ended up losing 6-1.
There is, as Winter suggests, a negativity and caution against the big sides that reeks of a lack of belief on Solskjaer’s part that his team are good enough to take the game to their opposition. Yesterday, as Winter says, nobody seemed to be desperate to win that match to put pressure on Manchester City in the title race.
No big six wins and no semi-final wins in three attempts; this is a team that lacks faith in itself. We cannot know whether that is Solskjaer’s pessimism and lack of ambition that is transmitting itself to his players, or is down to the players themselves. But there is reason to believe that it is the former.
One indicator of the Norwegian’s mindset is in his substitutions. Starting most games with ‘McFred’, as they have come to be known, Scott McTominay and Fred, in a twin defensive midfield role immediately screams ‘containment’. That is perhaps fair enough in terms of the starting line-up, containment could be the priority for the first hour, even. But if your ambition is to catch a team 10 points ahead of you, surely you have to sacrifice one of those DM’s and bring on a more attacking option.
Solskjaer did not do that yesterday. Nor has he done it on any of those previous big six encounters, aside from replacing McTominay with Martial in the away fixture at Arsenal due to a first half injury and bringing on Mason Greenwood for McTominay for just 7 minutes in the Arsenal home match.
It is almost as if that 6-1 drubbing at the start of the season by Spurs knocked the stuffing out of Solskjaer. He started that game with Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba in the DM roles, and when United went 4-1 down, he brought on McFred.
Solskjaer often speaks about United’s ‘DNA’ and part of that DNA is to play swashbuckling football, to play with ‘adrenaline and élan’, as Winter says. Yes, United are in a rebuilding process and avoiding 6-1 humiliations is important, but, well, get over it Ole. You have a squad capable of winning the Premier League, at least, that is what you should believe.