The last time Manchester United tasted defeat against a ‘big six’ side, it ended in embarrassment, acrimony and ultimately dismissal for Jose Mourinho.
At Anfield that night, December 16 last year, United were completely outplayed by Liverpool. The 3-1 scoreline in favour of the home side barely told the true tale. A chasm in class existed between Mourinho’s hapless, struggling Red Devils, and Jurgen Klopp’s composed, clinical title contenders.
On Sunday, nearly three months later, defeat was dished out again to United by a main rival. A chasm still exists but this time it is the quantum leap forward made by the same United squad in terms of confidence, momentum and results under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
The margin of defeat was again two goals – 2-0 in favour of hosts Arsenal – but this was not a loss laced with anger, dejection and sheer futility. It was one tinged rather with regret, wastefulness and a sense of inevitability.
After all, no team can stay undefeated forever. But under Solskjaer, it seemed United had forgotten how to lose.
The stumble at the Emirates was only United’s second loss in an 18-game span under the interim boss and even the maiden defeat – against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League last 16 first-leg a month ago – was rendered inconsequential by the stunning 3-1 reverse in the return leg in the French capital last week, Solskjaer’s standout result to date.
It may have been his best, but is hardly his sole highlight. A fluidity has returned to United’s attack. They are plundering goals and punishing opponents, whereas victories against Tottenham in the league, Arsenal and Chelsea in the FA Cup and against PSG in Europe have consigned belief Solskjaer is an inferior tactician to the flames.
While defeat in north London was disappointing, it did not feel decisive. Full credit should go to Unai Emery’s hosts – riding their own impressive run on their home patch.
But victory came via a David De Gea mistake – misjudging the wicked swerve on Granit Xhaka’s shot – and the softest of penalties awarded by John Moss.
United had more possession, a better pass completion rate and created more clear-cut openings. They hit the woodwork twice and had resurgent Romelu Lukaku buried the chance to make it 1-1 from Luke Shaw’s sumptuous cross instead of smacking the crossbar, you felt Arsenal’s brittle defence could easily have crumbled. Gunners goalkeeper Bernd Leno enjoyed an inspired afternoon.
The major difference between defeat in Holloway and defeat 222 miles north on Merseyside in December is that Sunday felt like a blip, a minor diversion on what has been a positive journey. Defeat at Anfield was an utter disaster.
The rampant Reds had a monstrous 36 shots compared to the Red Devils’ six. Liverpool mercilessly dominated possession (64.5 to 35.5 per cent), made 241 more passes, while United were forced into making 41 clearances compared to the hosts’ nine.
On that rain-soaked, resplendent night in Paris, United took their chances and prevailed. On Sunday they didn’t and got punished.
Think back to that galling defeat at the home of their most hated rivals, everything seemed hopeless. Yet just 86 days on, hope appears endless.
Waking up on December 17, United fans would have struggled to find any optimism. Dreams of a top four finish up in flames. Sixth in the table, one point ahead of seventh, and eight points adrift of fifth-placed Arsenal, 11 off fourth-placed Chelsea.
They had two more wins than defeats (7-5). Scored as many goals as they’d conceded (29) and amassed 26 points from 17 games. Thirteen points off third-placed Spurs. In the ensuing 13 games they’ve scored another 29 goals (58) and conceded only 11 (40), amassing 32 points to sit on 58. Spurs are still third (a point ahead of Arsenal) but United are a mere three points behind.
That tumultuous week back at the tail end of 2018 began with the chastening Liverpool thrashing on December 16. December 17: United are drawn against PSG in the Champions League last 16. December 18: Mourinho is sacked.
A week to go until Christmas, yet there was not much festive cheer around Old Trafford.
Fast forward three months. Ed Woodward, the most unlikely of Santa Claus figures, has bestowed Solskjaer on United fans. He in turn has delivered the club into the last eight in Europe, they face Wolves in the FA Cup quarter-finals on Saturday and are very much in the top four race.
That race and a coveted spot in next season’s Champions League promises to be an enthralling one. And, with the four runners – United, Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea – pretty much neck and neck as they round the final bend with the home stretch in sight, one thing that is almost certainly guaranteed is that it’s going to be a frantic end to the Premier League campaign.
The quartet are separated by just five points. Chelsea are sixth on 57 but have nine games remaining as opposed to eight for the others, and must go to fellow challengers United, as well as title-chasing Liverpool.
United host Chelsea and champions Manchester City. It will be intriguing to see how the Red Devils respond to their first league loss under Solskjaer, as well as how they manage a punishing schedule that includes the visit of the two blue-shirted sides in a five-day span at the end of April.
Solskjaer also has to navigate his side through the Champions League quarter-finals while there’s also that tricky FA Cup clash with Wolves – a competition that still represents their best chance of silverware.
Tottenham had been in the midst of a three-horse title race six weeks ago but have been reeled in by the chasing pack following a shocking run of results that has seen them pick up just a point from their last four league games. Like United, they also have to juggle Champions League commitments and face daunting trips to Anfield and the Etihad.
Arsenal are perhaps sitting prettier than anyone, and will be buoyed by their United victory, as well as the fact they have the easier run-in on paper. They don’t have any other engagements with the top five. Of all four top four challengers, however, it is their consistency and mettle that is most questionable. Maybe their more forgiving schedule is a hindrance. It is they who you would worry about more than anyone else.
“Ole’s at the wheel” has become the go-to chant of United supporters up and down the country, yet there is no call for a replacement driver after the Arsenal defeat.
Solskjaer has steered United to a place that seemed unfathomable at the start of his winning run three months ago. It was initially thought he was keeping the seat warm for Mauricio Pochettino or someone more permanent.
Now it appears just as unthinkable that anyone other than him will be at the helm next season. The wheel is far from broken, but United’s ceiling for this season has certainly been shattered.