Solskjaer back on track against disjointed Chelsea
Manchester United’s defeat to Paris Saint-Germain almost a week ago may have offered a long overdue reality check but who could blame their supporters if this FA Cup fifth round victory over Chelsea suddenly has them over-excited again?
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s caretaker spell is back on track after this 2-0 win and the Norwegian continues to inspire exciting, counter-attacking football that makes the most of the talent at his disposal.
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For Chelsea, this was another dispiriting defeat which increases pressure on Maurizio Sarri. Again, Sarri refused to deviate from his Plan A, preferring to stuck to principles which his players appear unable to act on.
There was no more telling symbol of Chelsea’s current malaise than the chants which rang around Stamford Bridge as game entered its closing stages. While the home crowd sang “F*** Sarriball”, their guests suggested they should “bring back Mourinho”.
It is surely not that bad. Not yet, at least. Even so, Sarri has to inspire a return to form and fast, or his trigger-happy employers may begin to consider their options.
Pogba treatment may be Mourinho’s greatest mistake
When the many errors of Jose Mourinho’s tenure as the manager of Manchester United are fully assessed – and there were many – the marginalisation of Paul Pogba will surely top the list.
It was around this time last year, shortly after signing a new contract, that Mourinho felt he had the political capital within the club to drop their record signing and most naturally-gifted player from the first team in favour of Scott McTominay.
Without being cruel to McTominay, it is hard to imagine him producing the exemplary cross that assisted Ander Herrera’s opening goal and the sublime one-two which led to United’s second, both in one half of football.
It is hard to imagine it from almost any other midfielder in world football, for that matter. And therein lies the rub. Mourinho knew he had this match-winning talent at his disposal but he undermined, isolated and ostracised Pogba making it impossible for him to produce this form consistently.
A year on from Mourinho’s power play, only one of the two men remains and here, his talent put United into the quarter-finals.
Alonso’s errors let United in
For all Marcos Alonso’s offensive exploits, it was glaring defensive frailties that marred his performance at Stamford Bridge. Five assists this campaign can only go so far in arguing the 28-year-old’s case for a starting spot in Sarri’s side.
Although Jorginho, or another Chelsea midfielder, could have tracked the arcing run of Herrera for United’s first, Alonso did not notice either Rashford or Herrera until late and was left scrambling helplessly towards the goalscorer as the ball bounced into the net.
Alonso later made the ill-advised decision to contest a header with Pogba that was simply unwinnable. Left hopelessly out of position by this bizarre choice when United swept forward, he was absent as Rashford received the ball out wide to deliver a pinpoint cross.
At fault for both of United’s goals, serious questions now need to be asked about Alonso’s continued selection. The pros and cons of his full-back play frequently are debated far too often, a worrying sign for a player contracted until 2023.
United’s attack sees mixed results without Lingard and Martial
The injuries to Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial last week appeared to expose a flaw in Solskjaer’s United. His attack was suddenly muted once they departed against Paris Saint-Germain, which suggested those in reserve were simply not up to the task.
What was easily forgotten was that in the previous round of this competition, away at the Emirates, United produced one of the most convincing displays of Solskjaer’s short reign and did so without two of their first-choice front three.
This was an opportunity for Romelu Lukaku and Juan Mata – Lingard and Martial’s replacements – to prove that they can slot easily into Solskjaer’s system without killing United’s counter-attacks. The results were mixed.
United ultimately coped well enough without two of their key men but their goals and other opportunities came mainly through the usual quick breaks and they had precious little to do with either Lukaku or Mata.
Sanchez left in the cold
With Lingard and Martial absent, this FA Cup tie could have provided Alexis Sanchez with an opportunity to kick start his United career more than a week after his arrival and less than a week after its nadir.
Yet with Lukaku and Mata preferred, the guile and agility of Sanchez was left on the substitutes’ bench until late in the second half when United had already done what was required in order to reach the last eight.
Given Chelsea’s pondering play and tendency to play out the back, the tenacious, hard-working Sanchez of old would normally have been an excellent choice to lead the line, harrying and harrassing Sarri’s backline.
That he was nevertheless left in reserve shows that his Old Trafford career remains at a low ebb. For now, the ketchup is still stuck in the bottle.