MANCHESTER, England — Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be talking a lot about “progress” between now and the end of the season: how much Manchester United have made, whether it’s enough and how they take the next step forward. It will be an easier conversation if this week goes well, and United started a crucial seven days with a narrow 1-0 win over West Ham United at Old Trafford on Sunday.
Hopes of finishing the season as Manchester City‘s nearest challengers strengthened, Solskjaer’s team now move on to competitions they can still actually win — first to AC Milan in the Europa League and then to Leicester City in the FA Cup. Finish second in the Premier League and win a trophy and Solskjaer will save himself a summer of debate about whether United are on the right track. Bow out of both the Europa League and the FA Cup before the international break and the same old questions about the direction of the club will resurface.
The first leg of what is a crucial run of three games has been safely negotiated, and with nine league games to go, United are nine points clear of West Ham in fifth. The risk of being dragged into a battle for the top four is subsiding and the focus now can be on bettering last season’s third-place finish and winning a trophy.
“This week was always going to be massive,” said Solskjaer afterwards. “We want to improve on last season and get to a final and move up the table. This week was always going to be about how we recovered after a massive disappointment after a late equaliser [against Milan on Thursday]. You never know how that can affect you but the attitude was spot on.
“We’re starting to build some momentum in the league and open the gap further to West Ham. It’s a big week for us.”
Victory over West Ham was not particularly pretty but it has given United some momentum at the start of a pivotal week. Solskjaer has ambitions greater than the Europa League and the FA Cup, but after four straight semifinal defeats, pressure is growing on the Norwegian manager to win something.
Progress in Europe is not guaranteed after a 1-1 draw with Milan at Old Trafford and they will need to score at least once in the San Siro on Thursday if they want to reach the quarterfinals of the Europa League. At Leicester on Sunday there is a place in the semifinals of the FA Cup up for grabs, and United’s prospects for the final stretch of this season will look a lot brighter if they are still in the hunt for trophies when the players return from international duty in the first week of April. In the Premier League, United have more points and have scored more goals than at the same stage last year, but this season needs silverware to add some shine.
In his programme notes ahead of West Ham’s visit, Solskjaer wrote about being “harder and harder to beat.” The numbers back him up with United losing just one of their past 23 league games and recording four consecutive Premier League clean sheets for the first time since Solskjaer took over. Harry Maguire was particularly good against West Ham.
The trick now is to go from not losing to winning more often, because they are not the same thing. Only Manchester City have lost fewer league games than United this season, but the Red Devils have drawn nine times and they will need those extra 18 points if they want to bridge the gap with Pep Guardiola’s champions-elect.
Becoming more clinical in front of goal would be a good start.
West Ham didn’t manage a shot on target but were only beaten here because of Craig Dawson’s own goal in the second half — the 15th goal they have conceded from set pieces this season. Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes will all feel they could have been on the scoresheet. Solskjaer will hope they’re saving the killer instinct for the cups.
“We’ve had four clean sheets now in the league straight up and that’s always a foundation,” he said. “We want to score goals. I feel we’re getting back to where we can, it was only a week ago we beat City 2-0. We don’t wanna be greedy, no one can score four or five goals in every game in the Premier League, you’ve got to earn it. The foundation with the clean sheet, attitude, desire, that’s there, and we always back our players to create enough to score goals.”
Ahead of a pivotal week, Solskjaer says United are going in the right direction. Follow up victory over West Ham with wins over Milan and Leicester to stay on course to lift a first trophy of his reign and supporters won’t just have to take his word for it.