It says everything about Manchester United at present that as he discussed the search for consistency with journalists in the build-up to his side’s trip to Everton, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had to stop and offer clarification: “Consistently doing well is what I mean, not the other way.”
After a week of increasing pressure and mounting uncertainty about his future either side of an embarrassing defeat at Istanbul Basaksehir, Solskjaer and United have every reason to be delighted with a 3-1 win at Goodison Park.
It is only the fourth time they have returned from the blue half of Merseyside with maximum points since 2008. They have lost at Everton five times in that same period, when the backdrop was substantially more positive than the one that framed Saturday’s game.
Between international breaks, United picked up seven points from four tricky fixtures, plus two wins from three in a really difficult Champions League group.
Had this return been offered in the wake of that 6-1 horror show against Tottenham on 4 October, it is fair to assume it would have been accepted.
Yet nothing about a period where United have secured two excellent away wins in the league – but collected just one point from six at home – and beaten two of last season’s Champions League semi-finalists – while also losing to a side who have never previously won a game in the competition – will convince anyone Solskjaer has suddenly found the right blend to turn the club back into a major force.
Back from the brink – again
There are many faults with Solskjaer’s United, but one thing both the manager and his players seem to have in abundance is character.
It is open to debate whether the Norwegian’s job was on the line at Everton. Club sources said not but a heavy defeat would have created enormous pressure on them to make a change.
What is beyond doubt is the external noise around Old Trafford was loud. It was the same last month after the Tottenham debacle.
And it is a recurring theme of Solskjaer’s reign. Last season, a 2-0 home defeat by Burnley put him in the firing line, given his side had collected three points from four games and had cup trips to Manchester City and Chelsea on the horizon.
A month before that, a disappointing draw with Aston Villa meant they had 10 points from nine games – and had beaten only Norwich and Brighton. Tottenham and City were their next Premier League opponents.
On every one of these occasions, Solskjaer’s team has delivered. He beat Pep Guardiola’s City side three times last season.
At Newcastle on 17 October, and again at Goodison Park on Saturday, United fought back after going behind. This is not the response of a team that lacks guts or is not playing for the manager.
However, it does beg the question: why do they need to be peering over a cliff edge before they can perform to the levels they are so obviously capable of?
“We want more consistency, to kick on and go on a run, climb the table and qualify for the Champions League,” said Solskjaer after Saturday’s victory.
“No-one likes to be criticised. My players don’t. So, of course they are going to come out and show what they are about and show their quality.
“My job now is to make sure that guard is up every time and doesn’t drop, and we don’t go into any game with a sense of: ‘We don’t have to work, that it will be easy and we can out-play teams.’
“We have to out-fight teams and out-run teams as well, and today was an exceptional performance for a long time after a difficult week for the boys.”
In central defence, Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof were outstanding at Goodison Park, denying Everton’s England striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who has been so impressive all season, a clear sight of goal. Yet there have been times this campaign when, individually, both players have been a shambles.
Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka made positive contributions on Saturday. Yet both were on the pitch against Basaksehir and – given they are both full-backs who do not tend to score – presumably at least one should have been paying far more attention to the developing situation that led to Demba Ba’s opener on Wednesday.
Can Man Utd be trusted?
When they return from the international break, United face an intense schedule of games. Depending on cup commitments and a trip to Burnley that still needs to be rearranged, they could have anything between six and 11 successive midweek fixtures.
There will barely be any time to draw breath until February.
Yet scanning their fixture list brings a sense of foreboding. The next three Premier League away games are against Southampton, West Ham United and Sheffield United – none of which resulted in victories last season. Manchester City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Aston Villa are among the next visitors to Old Trafford – those corresponding fixtures in 2019-20 did not end in wins either.
West Brom, who are winless so far this season, are United’s next opponents. Not many supporters will be completely sure three points will be secured. Victory would end a five-match Premier League sequence without a home and successive league triumphs for the first time since the beginning of July.
As Solskjaer was indicating as he adjusted what he was saying on Friday, the only consistency about Manchester United at present is their inconsistency. That is not a basis from which to achieve any long-term success.
The Everton match was Solskjaer’s 102nd as United manager. When he reached his century against Arsenal a week ago, a rather surprising statistic emerged. Solskjaer had won more games (55) in that first 100 than Jurgen Klopp (50) did at Liverpool. The Anfield club’s inconsistencies were to continue for a little while longer – they won only six of their next 14 fixtures.
After that, Liverpool paid £75m to sign Virgil van Dijk and it was only following the Netherlands defender’s arrival that the Reds were able to reach a consistent level of performance that ultimately saw them become first European and then English champions.
When you assess the mix of extremes Manchester United are presently capable of, it is becoming clear they need to make a similarly bold statement if they are to change the narrative in any meaningful way.