Solskjaer revolution continues apace as Fulham look doomed
Fulham 0 Manchester United 3
When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over just before Christmas, Manchester United were 11 points adrift of the top four, with a goal difference of zero. Nine games later, this comfortable victory took his side into the Champions League qualification places, with a goal difference of 17.
As auditions go, the caretaker manager is storming it. Not that he was keen to take credit for the transformation. "It's not me making a difference, it's the whole team," he said. "Yeah, we've done well, but it's never about one person when a team is winning."
Mind, when you are on an upward trajectory there can rarely be as hospitable opponents as Fulham. A team who have conceded more league goals than any other club in Europe's 40 top leagues, Claudio Ranieri's side were abject here.
To their fans' bemusement, Ryan Sessegnon and Tom Cairney were again on the bench. During the week, Ranieri had suggested that Sessegnon, in particular, was not aggressive enough. Which makes you wonder, if those picked ahead of him were considered to have more heft, how soft must he be?
Because while Fulham started brightly, Luciano Vietto miscuing a chance early on after being smartly found by Andre Schurrle, from the moment Manchester United came to terms with the wind swirling in off the Thames, the hosts demonstrated all the resolve of a digestive biscuit dunked in hot tea.
Paul Pogba relished the space on the riverbank. Full of tricks and feints, the Frenchman was unplayable. It was all there in the first goal. Fulham had possession on the edge of their area, with no hint of apparent risk. But Maxime Le Marchand allowed the ball to drift out of reach. Ander Herrera snapped in to win it and passed to Anthony Martial. The forward popped a blind pass in behind the defence to Pogba, who with minimum back lift hammered a shot past Sergio Rico.
Nine minutes later. Martial received the ball in his own half from Phil Jones and glided forward. As he approached the Fulham area, Le Marchand failed even to put in an attempt at a tackle, letting the Frenchman pass unhindered. Martial couldn't believe his luck, charging on before firing past Rico to make it 2-0. It was a superb finish.
United were in complete ascendancy. Their passing was slick, smooth and precise. As the game moved into the second half, one thing became increasingly clear: for all the work he has done with Marcus Rashford, for all the liberation Pogba is enjoying, no player has improved as much under Solskjaer as Nemanja Matic. From living statue to dynamic midfielder, this has been some turnaround.
He was superb here, constantly looking to move the ball forward. He was involved in the third goal, feeding Romelu Lukaku who bundled through some non-existent Fulham challenges before slipping a pass to Juan Mata on the edge of the area. The Spaniard was brought down as he turned by Le Marchand. Pogba duly converted the penalty for his eighth goal since Solskjaer took over.
By now the home fans had been driven to distraction. As simple passes went into touch, as fifty-fifty challenges were ducked, they were craving the arrival of Sessegnon or Cairney. When Schurrle was replaced by Cyrus Christie, frustration boiled into a chant directed at Ranieri of "you don't know what you're doing".
Solskjaer, meanwhile, appeared to know precisely what he was doing, taking Pogba, Martial and Herrera off early and able to keep Rashford and Jesse Lingard under wraps ahead of Tuesday's encounter with Paris Saint-Germain.
"I would have to say so," he said when asked if it was ideal preparation for the Champions League tie. "After we scored the first goal, we played fantastic."
As for Ranieri, his next three home games are against Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City. For the man who was champion just three seasons ago, it appears only misery awaits.