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United return to the scene of their biggest crime under Solskjaer and must make amends

Performances in these final three months of the campaign will provide the strongest indication yet that the Norwegian’s methods are working.

Solskjaer watches on as United were humiliated 4-0 at Goodison Park last season.
Solskjaer watches on as United were humiliated 4-0 at Goodison Park last season.
Image: Dave Howarth

Updated Feb 28th 2020, 4:16 PM

SO, THEY RETURN to the scene of the crime.

If Paris was the night when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made the Manchester United job his own, Goodison Park in April was when serious doubts about his appointment began to emerge.

It remains the nadir of the Norwegian’s reign.

Everton trounced Solskjaer’s side 4-0 in front of a jubilant Gwladys Street to end any slim hopes United had of qualifying for the Champions League.

Four different scorers – Richarlison, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Lucas Digne and Theo Walcott – ran riot against the beleaguered and bereft visitors.

For some context, Walcott has found the net just twice in his 26 appearances since.

“Everyone here can say with hands on hearts that’s not good enough – not worthy of a Manchester United team. We know that and apologise again to fans,” Solskjaer said in the aftermath of the humiliation.

everton-v-manchester-united-premier-league-goodison-park Theo Walcott is mobbed by teammates after sealing the 4-0 win last season. Source: Dave Howarth

The BBC, usually the beacon of sober analysis, labelled United’s performance as a ‘heartless, abject shambles’, describing how those visiting players had been ‘reduced to being ironically cheered by their own supporters for merely stringing three passes together with Everton 4-0 up and in cruise control.’

A little under a year later and Marco Silva, the man who wore a beaming smile in the home dugout that day, has been discarded. In his place has come Carlo Ancelotti, the Italian maestro breathing new life into a club that now has Europa League qualification in its sights.

Solskjaer, as the song goes, remains at the wheel for United but he has been quick to leave numerous of those in the starting XI that day in Goodison by the wayside.

Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Diego Dalot and Romelu Lukaku have either been sent on loan, sold or ostracised.

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Paul Pogba has missed virtually the entire season, too, as he continues to angle for a move away from Old Trafford while dealing with various ailments  – the latest of which was surgery on his ankle back in January.

everton-v-manchester-united-premier-league-goodison-park Everton's Bernard (left) and Lucas Digne react after the final whistle in April. Source: Dave Howarth

His recuperation has allowed him time to focus on finding a new hairstyle and the perfect filter to showcase it on Instagram.

The French World Cup winner hasn’t said much but his agent, Mino Raiola, has done all the talking for him as it becomes clear that the chances of him pulling on a red shirt again are slim.

Ahead of Sunday, Solskjaer has worked diligently without the player perceived to be the most talented within his squad. The signing of midfielder Bruno Fernandes during the latest transfer window looks to be a success, but it will be United’s performances in these final three months of the campaign that will provide the strongest indication yet that his methods are working on the training pitch.

Fitness has been a major issue for the Norwegian since he replaced Jose Mourinho, and he has not been shy about lamenting the condition many of the players he inherited were in.

We can get fitter and we have to do that through the training sessions here, but Dubai is a good chance because now is the first time we get a week of work together,” he said in January 2019, not long after his appointment as caretaker.

It wasn’t the only time he felt compelled to comment on the matter, and on 5 October Solskjaer was beating the drum again: “If you are going to survive in modern-day football, you have to be fit. They have to be fitter than what they were when I came in. We are still working on it and they will get there.”

That was a rather stark admission, considering the Norwegian worked with the sport science and fitness departments at the club to work on a pre-season programme designed to drastically improve the situation.

Solskjaer gave his squad a week off following the hectic Christmas/January schedule, followed by a six-day warm weather training camp in Spain during the inagurual Premier League winter break.

So far the benefits of the trip are bearing fruit. United are unbeaten in their four games since returning, beating Chelsea 2-0 at Stamford Bridge and easing past Watford 3-0 in the type of game that has troubled them at Old Trafford.

Last night’s 5-0 demolition of Club Bruges secured progression to the last 16 of the Europa League but it will be the outcome at Goodison on Sunday which will illustrate just how far they have travelled under Solskjaer’s guidance.

And after that the question will be whether they have not just the will, but the stamina for the fight to qualify for the Champions League. 

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