Manchester United have been here before. A hotly-debated new contract for an inexperienced manager. A spectacular late show in the Champions League that gets the synapses firing, irrespective of what came before it. And a game against Everton. United are here right now, as they were in April 2019.
The manager then, as now, was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The former Molde boss was in the afterglow of signing a permanent deal after a successful caretaker spell, while now he is coming off a summer where the board saw fit to back him with a new three-year contract. In 2019, United had progressed to the Champions League quarter final off the back of a 3-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain, sealed in the 94th minute, that gave them the aggregate advantage. In 2021, Solskjaer’s side have just beaten a dogged Villarreal 2-1 by virtue of a 95th minute Cristiano Ronaldo strike. The parallels between where the Old Trafford club found themselves in 2019 and where they are now, are there. So how did that visit to Goodison Park finish two and a half years ago? Everton 4 Manchester United 0. The losing side would not win another game all season.
Of course no one is suggesting this is a scientific form guide for what will happen when The Toffees travel to Old Trafford this afternoon. For a start, Everton were led out that day by Marco Silva. In the years since, his successor Carlo Ancelotti has come and gone, before being replaced by Rafael Benitez. Manchester United lined up with a makeshift defence that day, with Victor Lindelof used at right back while Diogo Dalot lined up on the left. Phil Jones also made one of his 18 Premier League appearances of that season. This is another parallel, but not a damning one. United are without Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire but the likes of Raphael Varane and Aaron Wan-Bissaka are still available.
But rather than giving us hints of what we could see on the pitch this afternoon, these games can be twinned for what they tell us about Solskjaer. The Manchester United manager had enjoyed a grace period, helped by easing in as a caretaker initially. This was helped by the former Reds striker winning 14 of his first 19 games in charge. After taking over permanently, the Norwegian had won one and lost one in the Premier League. The trip to Goodison Park would change the mood considerably.
On the day, the Red Devils were utterly humbled. The performance was so bad that the away support began ironically cheering their own players for stringing simple passes together. Everton deserve credit for a scintillating performance, but United were as dysfunctional as their opponents were wonderful. The result quietened the supportive voices around Solskjaer’s appointment, giving the floor to those who had questioned the wisdom of handing him the permanent role before the end of the season. The United hierarchy had originally given themselves time to ruminate, with Solskjaer’s temporary appointment running until the end of the season. The post-PSG joy had seen a rethink take place, and hearts had perhaps been allowed to rule heads. After this abject performance, and Barcelona making the Paris win moot by eliminating United in the quarter finals, doubts began to creep in.
They have never truly gone away in the years that have followed. Solskjaer has shepherded the club to third and second-placed finishes, the first back-to-back Champions League qualifications since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. But he has also failed to deliver a trophy, with last year’s Europa League final the latest in a series of silverware near-misses. Social media reactionaries tweet calling for the manager’s head after every draw or defeat, and occasionally even in victory. The match-going fans do still back him though, as evidenced by them chanting his name throughout the Villarreal game. But fans on both sides of the debate, as well as neutral observers, would agree Solskjaer still has the same questions to answer as he did back in April 2019.
This season has done little to answer them. Despite bringing in a wealth of world class talent in Varane, Ronaldo and Jadon Sancho, United have often been second best even in victory. Villarreal played them off the park at times, the league win over West Ham looked fortunate, and Wolverhampton Wanderers can blame their lack of end product for their 1-0 loss to the Red Devils.
For all the quality in the squad, Solskjaer has yet to find a balance. The chances of landing silverware also became more remote when the Hammers dumped them out of the Carabao Cup. On the flipside, they’re coming off a win over a team they’ve never beaten, and are only one point off Liverpool at the top of the table. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team are a wealth of contradictions, just as they were in 2019. History is repeating itself, but will it do so on the pitch when United face Everton this afternoon?