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Has Ole Gunnar Solskjaer learned lessons from defeat to Wolves?
Manchester United visit Wolves on Tuesday from 7.30pm on Sky Sports Premier League; Kick-off at 7.45pm
Last Updated: 02/04/19 3:43pm
Manchester United lost to Wolves in the FA Cup. Now Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needs to show Louis van Gaal and the rest that he has learned his lesson in the rematch, writes Adam Bate.
Luke Shaw described Manchester United's second-half performance against Watford as "awful" and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said the atmosphere in the dressing room afterwards was "like a funeral" but at least the Norwegian's first match as permanent manager ended in victory.
Tuesday's trip to Wolves means a return to the scene of their defeat in the previous game - and a chance for Solskjaer to address one of the few lingering concerns about his record since returning to the club.
There is no doubt that Solskjaer has reinvigorated Manchester United. He has reconnected with supporters by embracing the club's heritage rather than denying it, delivering some memorable moments along the way. Key players are back on side and matches are being won by getting the ball forward much quicker than they had previously.
But former United boss Louis van Gaal still felt able to claim that Solskjaer is "another coach who parks the bus and plays on the counter" in a recent interview. For the Dutchman, it is a bit more Jose Mourinho than Sir Alex Ferguson. "The way Manchester United are playing now is not the way Ferguson played," he said. "It is defensive, counter-attacking football."
Van Gaal clearly has a vested interest in talking down his successors at Old Trafford. He acknowledged as much when describing it as his truth rather than the truth. But it would be an error to dismiss his criticisms as entirely baseless. Solskjaer has restored the counter-attack to United's repertoire but other issues that dogged Mourinho's reign have remained.
While Solskjaer insists that in "some games we have pressed really high and won the ball up there and dominated", there is no doubt that the standout results have come when they have allowed their opponents to have the ball. The victory away to Paris Saint-Germain was an obvious highlight but so too was the counter-attacking clinic at Arsenal in the FA Cup.
United had only 37 per cent of possession in that 3-1 win at the Emirates Stadium and saw just 33 per cent of the ball in the subsequent 2-0 victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the next round of the competition. Both were impressive results away from home so it feels churlish to be too critical, but the manner of the performances was still revealing.
Under Solskjaer, United appear so much more comfortable playing on the break. Even against Reading in the FA Cup third-round tie at Old Trafford, the Championship strugglers had more than 60 per cent of possession. It has become the method of choice and the result is that they look rather less convincing in games where the onus is on them to make the play.
Wolves exploited that vulnerability in the quarter-final at Molineux. The home side barely had a touch of the ball in the early stages - United had 87 per cent of possession in the opening seven minutes - but it was all part of the plan. By dropping deep to deny Marcus Rashford space to run into, Wolves neutralised United and never looked like being broken down.
"In the first half we defended very well, very organised and very compact," said Wolves boss Nuno Espirito Santo. "We allowed them possession of the ball but tried to recover in the right areas. The shape worked very well. In the second half, I think we managed the ball better. We had possessions. We created problems for them with our movements."
By the time that Rashford did score, in the fourth minute of stoppage time, it was too late. For all their possession, United had registered only one shot on target in the previous 93 minutes. They were kept at arm's length and funnelled away from dangerous areas. Wolves succeeded in controlling the game against them without controlling the ball and won 2-1.
They were able to do so because there was no tempo to United's passing. Some reports suggested that, in the dressing room after the game, Solskjaer likened the performance to the sort witnessed under his predecessor. "It was a big step backwards I have got to say," he told reporters. "That was the poorest performance since I got here."
Sometimes possession doesn't mean that you are going to create chances and score goals.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Based on his comments on the eve of the rematch, Solskjaer appears acutely aware of the issue. "It was a different kind of game to many others for us," he explained. "We had the ball 70 per cent of the time." Perhaps with Van Gaal's comments in mind, he added: "But sometimes possession doesn't mean that you are going to create chances and score goals."
The test of Solskjaer's management skills will come on Tuesday when he seeks to address the team's deficiency in those situations back at the scene of the crime. It is intriguing because, again, he knows exactly what to expect. Wolves will line up with the familiar back-three system and maintain the philosophy that has underpinned Nuno's work at the club.
Solskjaer's players will have been left in no doubt that a repeat of their earlier efforts will not be tolerated but it will require more than mere endeavour. They must show something different tactically, whether that's finding a way to get Paul Pogba on the ball in dangerous areas or including Romelu Lukaku to give them a forward pivot from which to build attacks.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer should be able to call on Anthony Martial and Romelu Lukaku at Molineux
For that reason, it is the manager himself who will be under scrutiny in this game. Though victory would be important in the race for the Champions League places, there are more than three points at stake. As well as Solskjaer has done and even after being awarded a three-year contract as a reward for his promising start, there are boxes still left to tick.
Losing to the same opponents, in the same stadium, in the same manner, would be a miserable way to mark the first away game since his appointment. Adapting the approach to find a different solution to the problem posed by a strong side would be the next step for Solskjaer - and provide the perfect riposte to the criticism levelled at him by Van Gaal.
The manager's view: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
"We just have to go into the next seven games with the same attitude. We went into games with nothing to lose, let's go for it and see where it takes us, so now we have got into this position it just means carrying on. Don't change your approach on how to attack games."
The opposition's view: Nuno Espirito Santo
"That was a big moment, but [Tuesday] is totally different. We competed well. We were very organised and we have to do it again because it will require a lot from us. Every time we face a team like Manchester United we have to be ready to compete."
The player's view: Phil Jones
"Everyone can see what he has done and how he wants to play since he's come in, and we've shown that in quite a few games. It's positive and we are all looking forward. We've shown good character under Ole and we need to continue that."
The legend's view: David Beckham
"He has done an incredible job so he deserves the contract he has got. He is loved by the fans and the players and everyone else at the club. He has done a great job and it will continue because real fans love him. It's great for the club and great for him."
The Sunday Supplement view: Jason Burt, chief football correspondent, the Telegraph
"Whatever you say, this is still a huge job for someone like Solskjaer to take on board. He has done all the right things so far, but now he has some very hard decisions to make as well about the what happens about the future of the club."