For all the criticism of the predictability of Manchester United under Jose Mourinho, perhaps no performance was more predictable than that which gave Ole Gunnar Solskjaer a symbolic 5-1 win in his first game as caretaker boss.
Six days after the dire, lifeless display that proved to be the final straw for Mourinho, Solskjaer presided over a victory full of pace, creativity and attacking intent which produced United’s first five-goal haul since Sir Alex Ferguson’s final match in charge five and a half years ago.
So tight had Mourinho apparently turned the screw on his browbeaten men that the release was always going to be intense. Everyone anticipated a reaction and this was the new manager bounce in its most literal form.
United had – or rather, enjoyed – 74 per cent of the possession, the most dominant they have been in any game this season, often toying with Cardiff in the kind of way you would expect a top-four behemoth to tease a newly-promoted outfit. The Red Devils didn’t run rings around their hosts, rather they passed and penetrated in one-touch triangles to create opportunities for the relentless Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard to drive at the dazed Bluebirds.
When their opportunities came, United took them with each goal unique in its type. An Exocet missile launched off a set-piece; a long-range drive (albeit with the aid of a deflection); an incisive passing move; a no-nonsense penalty; and finally, a one-on-one to round off a fast break.
Everyone involved in United’s effort in south Wales seemed to be at pains to demonstrate that a page had been turned in the wake of Mourinho’s departure and that Solskjaer’s is a different unit, despite identical components.
This victory offered immediate vindication to anyone who identified Mourinho as the root cause of United’s problems, including those in the dressing room. Mourinho might contend that this was the United he wanted and the one he expected had the players offered him the same ‘intensity and desire’ that they laid down for his immediate replacement. But Solskjaer also appeared keen to emphasise the new dawn, with his selection decisions, pre-match and in-game, offering glaring contrasts between him and the Portuguese.
Manchester United never scored more than four goals in a game during Jose Mourinho's 144 matches in charge.
They have done it in their first game after his sacking.
— Daniel Storey (@danielstorey85) December 22, 2018
Pogba, a virus that Mourinho feared would obliterate his dressing room, was offered immediate redemption, while Luke Shaw was also brought back in from the wilderness he had apparently been dumped in once again by the ex-boss. Solskjaer’s first substitution while United were dominant? Fred, the £52million midfielder Mourinho said he was unable to play in this struggling team. His others: Andreas Pereira, who seemed to be finished at United under the previous regime, and Marouane Fellaini in place of Nemanja Matic, not alongside him.
Solskjaer had no time to make similar sweeping changes to United’s tactics but the tweaks that facilitated this triumph were devastatingly simple. The interim boss pushed full-backs Shaw and Ashley Young much higher to stretch Cardiff, which had the desired effect going forward and, though each left the kind of space behind them that Mourinho would never tolerate, the Bluebirds were not good enough to seize the few opportunities they had to break.
But this is the brave new post-Mourinho world. Fear and loathing has already given way to enterprise and adventure – just the qualities these players will claim they have been forced to suppress.
The stars who went without exception to salute the United fans, in stark contrast to previous weeks when too many of the same individuals had sloped off either too ashamed or too entitled to acknowledge their support, were damned either way today. A continuation of their previous struggles would have given Mourinho some exoneration, but so too in some ways does an improvement as vast and as rapid as this. The ex-manager was not instructing the players not to press as hard and pass as precisely as they did today, and the immediate shift suggests that the dressing room wasn’t doing all it could for Mourinho and, consequently, the club as a whole or its fans. As Solskjaer said after witnessing the level of graft unprecedented this season: “Your work-rate is the easiest thing to work on.”
As the smiles suggested throughout the evening, from the pitch, the bench and the stand, what’s done is done. Pogba and Alexis Sanchez should face consequences for their unwillingness to hide their glee at Mourinho’s fate, but there is little to be gained now from dwelling on one of the most miserable chapters in United’s recent history. Solskjaer is only interested in looking forward, literally and metaphorically. His players appear certain to thrive while being encouraged to do the same.