This weekend’s Premier League action kicks off with Manchester United looking to continue Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s unbeaten start to management at the club, as they take on Fulham in Saturday’s lunchtime fixture.
The caretaker manager has so far won nine and drawn one of his ten games in charge, and a win against Fulham will see United back into the top four for the first time since immediately after the first day of the season, when they had beaten Leicester City and nobody else had played a game.
For Claudio Ranieri’s Fulham side, the relegation picture is looking increasingly bleak and the odds are against the West London club pulling off a shock result on Saturday.
Here’s a look at the talking points ahead of the game.
SOLSKJAER LOOKING TO AVOID TRAP
United went into their fixture against Burnley last week knowing they could have made Solskjaer the first manager to win his first seven Premier League fixtures. Instead, they nearly slipped to a shock defeat, needing two late goals to salvage a 2-2 draw.
That game will be on the Norwegian’s mind, for many reasons. Firstly, just to remind his players not to take Fulham lightly, regardless of how far down they are in the league table. United should beat Fulham, yes, but they should have beaten Burnley too.
Another concern for Solskjaer is that his team’s performance has dipped slightly since the start of his reign. They were sloppy against Leicester last weekend, the fixture that came immediately after the Burnley draw, and in their previous game in the league, they dominated Brighton but failed to kill the game off, riding their luck in a 2-1 win.
Solskjaer’s first five games ended in wins by at least two goals; the next five have seen only one game with a winning margin of two or more, the 3-1 win over Arsenal. And failing to convert early dominance is becoming a theme. The newly-crowned Premier League manager of the month will want to avoid any sort of hiccup on Saturday.
🎶 "Ole's at the wheel!" 🎶— BT Sport Score (@btsportscore) February 8, 2019
A double-dose of good news for Man Utd...
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is the first Man Utd manager since Sir Alex to win Premier League manager of the month 🙌
Marcus Rashford has been named Premier League player of the month for the first time 🔥 pic.twitter.com/qTFJC8lpXj
UNITED FRINGE PLAYERS NEED TO STEP UP
Given that United’s Champions League round of 16 first leg against PSG is three days after Saturday’s fixture, the other concern for Solskjaer is rotating his team. The last time he made wholesale changes to his XI – nine, for the FA Cup third round fixture against Reading – the team looked disjointed and short on momentum.
The manager had charitably suggested that the struggles of midfield duo Fred and Andreas Pereira, in particular, in that game were partly his fault.
Since then, Fred hasn’t made another United appearance, and Pereira’s last appearance saw him give away the ball in the build-up to Burnley’s first goal in that dramatic draw.
Solskjaer may take both the Burnley and Reading experiences into account when naming his XI for Saturday. It’s likely that Paul Pogba will start, even with the looming PSG game, and that would make life easier for Fred, Pereira, or both.
Elsewhere, Diogo Dalot should get the chance to build on his solid start in United colours, while Romelu Lukaku and Juan Mata could also be handed starts. With a tough run of fixtures coming up, this would be a good time for those players to step up.
Solskjaer on Andreas Pereira: "He's a player that you could see playing quite a few games for us towards the end of the season."#mufc— United In Focus (@UnitedInFocus) January 28, 2019
ARE FULHAM BEYOND SAVING FOR RANIERI?
Ranieri has a mixed record in relegation fights; he did an excellent job at Parma in 2007, but when his champion Leicester City team slipped in 2016-17, it was clear he couldn’t do anything to arrest the slide.
It would be unfair to pin too much of the blame for Fulham’s current predicament on his shoulders, but the fact remains that he hasn’t improved the side during his time in London. It must be galling for a manager who prizes defensive solidity so much to preside over a defence that is continually breached – they have the league’s worst defensive record by far, conceding nine more goals than any other team.
Things are no better at the other end of the pitch, where Fulham have the fourth-lowest goals scored total in the division.
Ranieri knew what he was getting into when he took over the Cottagers, but perhaps now he is wondering if this was the right job to take on. Fulham are now seven points from safety, and though he can take heart from how fellow relegation strugglers Burnley, Newcastle, Brighton, and Southampton have all troubled United this season, can he get his team to replicate those performances?
Ole on Claudio Ranieri: "What he did at Leicester shows you his capabilities as a manager. He's someone I've looked up to, admired. Counter-attacking football has always been a standard in his teams, and that's what we're going to come up against." #MUFC— Manchester United (@ManUtd) February 8, 2019
Anthony Martial has hailed the impact of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United, both for the team’s previously flagging campaign and on his own game in particular.
When Solskjaer replaced Jose Mourinho in December, United were 11 points off the top four, but in eight Premier League games under the Norwegian the gap has been closed to two, and the Red Devils could finish the coming weekend in the Champions League places depending on their game against Fulham and other results.
Despite the team’s poor start to the season – when Mourinho was sacked, United had made their worst start to a season in 28 years – Martial believes they are now well poised for the rest of the season.
“I don’t think we are very far off the top four now so it is just a case of keeping going, winning as many games as we can so we can ensure a place in those Champions League spots at the end of the season,” the Frenchman told Sky Sports.
Solskjaer has made an unbeaten start to his time as caretaker manager, with nine wins and a draw in 10 games across competitions, and Martial has praised the United legend for bringing the best out of him and his team-mates.
“He [Solskjaer] is a coach with great values. I think he knows how to get the best out of players and he makes things clear so when we go out onto the field, we all know our jobs and we all know what we’ve got to do,” he added.
“He’s given me lots of advice. It’s always positive to get advice from a top player in his own right, but sometimes, when you’re out on the field, it comes down to what comes naturally to you and you do what you’ve always known how to do in terms of finishing.”
Martial has always been known for his cool, composed finishing, but he revealed that his success rate in training is actually a poorer finisher than what his on-field performances would indicate, a source of laughter among his United team-mates.
He said: “We have a laugh among ourselves quite often because I think finishing is something that comes naturally to me. I’ve played since I was a young kid, I’ve always been a footballer and a striker from that early age.
“The thing we laugh about is that I miss quite a few in training, whereas in a match, I may only get one chance and I manage to convert it.”
Manchester United forward Anthony Martial hopes to win “as many titles” as possible at the club where he says he has a “special relationship” with the fans.
Martial was a surprise signing in summer 2015, becoming the world’s most expensive teenager at the time when United paid Monaco £36 million, a fee that could still rise to over £50m with add-ons.
The Frenchman began his United career with a bang, scoring a memorable goal on debut against the club’s biggest rivals, Liverpool, and finishing the 2015/16 season as the team’s highest scorer.
But his career seemingly began to stall after Jose Mourinho arrived as manager in the summer of 2016, with Martial flitting in and out of the first XI under the Portuguese.
Things deteriorated to the extent that Martial requested a transfer last summer, but his form slowly began to improve at the start of this season, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer replacing Mourinho in December has allowed the 23-year-old to thrive.
The forward signed a contract extension at the end of the January transfer window, a big win for United, who continue to have high hopes for the young star – a sentiment Martial shares.
“Any footballer would say the same thing, [my goal is] to win as many titles and trophies as possible, as much silverware as possible and it is also really important to keep developing, progressing and improving as a player over the years,” Martial told Sky Sports.
“I’d describe the period [since Martial has been at United] as really enriching for me as a person and a footballer. They have been good years, I’ve learnt a lot and I hope that I can continue to push on in the next few years as well.
“The fans and I have had quite a special relationship from my first season and fortunately, it has continued to last until now. I hope it continues into the future and let’s hope that together, we can win trophies and silverware.”