Man United aren't back yet, but a big win under Solskjaer is just what the struggling club needed
CARDIFF, Wales -- As it turns out, Manchester United do have some good footballers.
It's always a dangerous game to impose the overarching narrative around a football team after a single performance, and thus you'd hesitate before ascribing Manchester United's convincing 5-1 win over Cardiff City to their manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, being a man everyone likes, rather than one whom few did, Jose Mourinho. But after being told for the past couple of years that United's players aren't good enough and watching them being patronised by a manager praising them for doing their best against Liverpool, it was pleasing at least to see a set of United players perform like they weren't afraid of being told off.
At one point towards the end, Luke Shaw popped up in the No.10 position. Paul Pogba danced around the pitch like a show horse, playing no-look passes and being ambitious. Anthony Martial was confronted with the unfamiliar sight of being applauded and encouraged by his manager. "They're good players," a beaming Solskjaer said after the game.
Sometimes, it really can be that simple.
This was the first time United had scored five goals in a single game since Sir Alex Ferguson's last game in charge. "Since Mick Phelan's last game," joked Solskjaer, referring to his new assistant who'd been brought back to United to provide another familiar face in the halls of Old Trafford. Maybe Phelan is what's been missing all along.
Everyone was having a little more fun, not least the man who helped himself to a couple of goals, Jesse Lingard. Of course, Lingard is the sort of character who could have fun locked in a windowless room, with a klaxon and a strobe light going off in his face, but the point stands.
"The lads played with a lot of energy, enjoyment and excitement," said Lingard.
But of course, it's far too simplistic to conclude this performance was only because they were liberated from the cruel yoke of their former manager. If United had played under Mourinho as they did in the first 15 minutes or so, you'd probably conclude this was a team gone stale under a manager who had run out of ideas. Most of their passing was sideways, aside from the odd big diagonal that more often than not went astray.
At that stage they weren't actually playing that well, and who knows how things would have panned out had Marcus Rashford not given them a third-minute lead with a free kick that wrong-footed Cardiff keeper Neil Etheridge. But they did score, which freed them up, so we'll never know.
It was around the second goal that they really started to loosen up, and if they can take one thing as a repeatable lesson from this game it's the third goal, a rapid, flowing move finished off with zen-like calm by Anthony Martial.
If there was one thing that Solskjaer did rather than simply making everyone feel better, it was to keep things simple. Neil Warnock said afterwards that he hadn't studied United's previous games, but he still predicted the team United would pick; after all, it was the logical one. This was set of players picked in their proper positions, asked to play football.
It'll never catch on.
His instructions were simple, too. After the game he said he told his players that nobody should work harder than a Manchester United team, simply to run hard. "I said the same to these lads as I did back home in Molde. If you lose the ball, I don't mind: win it back," he said. All pretty basic stuff.
But that's what United needed. Someone to cut through the fog of the past few months and can remind them that often football can be played in a straightforward manner.
The caveat, of course, is that this was only Cardiff. "I know they took their goals well, but you can't say they were brilliant today," grumbled Warnock. "Our defending was Sunday league. They'll be disappointed they didn't get eight or nine."
Man United needed this, even if it is just a short-term mood-lifter. How much can United learn from this in the longer term? Not much, probably. Solskjaer's presence (and Mourinho's absence) might have cheered everyone up a bit, but after one training session, he hasn't had time to change anything of real significance in this United team. The novelty of United's manager no longer being Jose Mourinho will wear off in good time.
Manchester United fans have been singing songs about Solskjaer for the past 22 years. For the latter half of that it's been slightly odd given he stopped playing for them in 2007. But now their hero has returned and their renditions of "You are my Solskjaer..." and "Who put the ball in the Germans' net?" can be heard in person by the man they celebrate.
United's travelling support always make a lot of noise but this time, you really believed they were having a good time, too. For now, that will do.