Ole Gunnar Solskjaer changed another FA Cup fourth round tie against Liverpool from the bench as Man United progressed to the fifth round.
Twenty-two years to the day since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer ‘put the ball in the Scousers’ net’ in the FA Cup fourth round, he changed the game from the bench again. Liverpool went 1-0 up at Old Trafford only for Manchester United to make it 2-1. There was a different result this time but the substitute was once more the matchwinner.
It was never going to be as dramatic as Solskjaer’s arrowed winner at the Stretford End in the Treble season and households in Greater Manchester and beyond will have had to settle with startling the neighbours. Knocked off their perch and knocked out of the cup, United have secured a mid-season double over Liverpool.
Solskjaer’s in-game management is starting to rival his studious substitute appearances as a player. Bruno Fernandes appeared primed for a breather at Fulham in anticipation of a return against Liverpool. Solskjaer switched his roles and Fernandes, having forced the equaliser at Fulham, emerged off the bench to send United through four days later.
Just like in ’99, United’s substitutions were transformative. Fernandes and Fred brought silk and steel to a midfield overrun by a Liverpool re-energised by the substitute Sadio Mane and Liverpool could not recalibrate. In the absence of crestfallen Scousers, Liverpool’s official media member smacked his desk in disgust.
For a fixture that has a habit of disappointing, this was a crowd-pleasingly open contest, with both sides tallying at least two goals against each other for the first time since September 2010. Mercifully for United, the final score was the same.
Solskjaer lamented United’s failure to ‘pounce’ on Liverpool’s auxiliary centre-backs last week and they atoned in the Cup. Marcus Rashford, usually the scourge of Liverpool by the M6, was much more clinical and, if it is any consolation for the rookie Rhys Williams, Trent Alexander-Arnold was rinsed by Rashford in United’s previous victory over Liverpool. Williams played with a dread that vindicated Jurgen Klopp’s use of Jordan Henderson at centre half last week.
Two of United’s goals stemmed from through balls a competent defender would have intercepted, with James Milner attempting to overcompensate for Williams’s defensive deficiencies for Mason Greenwood’s leveller. Fabinho conceded the free-kick Fernandes converted in the 78th minute. All four of Rashford’s goals past Liverpool have nestled in the Scoreboard End net.
Liverpool have treated the FA Cup with disdain under Klopp, all but conceding in eliminations to Wolves (as a Championship and Premier League outfit), Chelsea and suffering the ignominy of a draw with Exeter. They were more bullish in this season’s edition, evinced by the presence of regulars against Aston Villa’s kindergarten debutants in the third round, and further emboldened by a five-game winless league run.
United were arguably more lax with their team selection of five changes and the omissions of Fernandes and Fred from the trusted trio in midfield. Fernandes and Fred were the first two introduced off the bench and Solskjaer can now add Klopp to his list of coaching scalps.
Tottenham exploited United three months ago by targeting the full-backs amid a lack of protection from the wingers and the warning signs were blaring in the first minutes. Alexander-Arnold was an open option for Roberto Firmino, only he was perceptive enough to play the ball through the corridor between Victor Lindelof and Luke Shaw.
Shaw had the vigilance to tuck inside and shadow Salah, minus the attentiveness of his performance at Anfield. Lindelof’s body shape was dubious and his positioning too deep. When Rashford and Greenwood collaborated at the opposite end, the latter latched onto Milner’s errant placement and lashed past Alisson. Milner, fortunate to avoid a caution for a rumbustious foul on Harry Maguire, had been chipping away at the referee Craig Pawson and was suddenly silenced.
Greenwood had vexed Edinson Cavani with his decision-making at earlier opportunities and Milner simplified his one-on-one against Alisson for what was Greenwood’s first goal against a ‘big six’ club. Salah’s delicate dink was respite in an otherwise gruelling duel with the otherwise excellent Shaw, the unlikely panacea to United’s infamous corner-taking.
Donny van de Beek did not lack advice from the dugout or his teammates on only his seventh domestic start. Solskjaer admonished Van de Beek for his momentum-killing back pass from a breakaway and Dean Henderson advised him to ‘stay down’ in the vain hope of influencing the Video Assistant Referee, for Pawson appeared to have forgotten his cards until the last five minutes of the first-half. Maguire informed Pawson his officiating was ‘shocking’.
Come the inevitable hour-mark changes, Van de Beek was predictably hooked, although that was majorly down to United’s looseness in midfield with Paul Pogba, eventually relocated to the right to accommodate Fred’s reunion with Scott McTominay in Solskjaer’s dependable duo.
Even after Fernandes thrashed the ball past Alisson, he clipped an undefendable cross for Cavani to ping the post in what would have made for a more serene ending. Like the ’99 immortals, that just does not seem to be in this United’s makeup.