Football Features

“He proved he speaks Solskjaer’s language” – Five things learned as Man Utd beat Norwich to make FA Cup final four

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 20:24, 27 June 2020

In an attritional evening of football, Manchester United beat 10-man Norwich in the FA Cup after extra time.

The win sends United back into the semi-finals, with The Red Devils looking to win their first trophy since 2016. What did we learn?

1. Manchester United’s Captain Fantastic

Back at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Harry Maguire terrorised every single side that England faced. Set-pieces were a strength of England’s precisely because of Maguire’s ability to dominate in the air. He did the same for Leicester, and so everyone expected him to do the same for United and score a lot of goals. Except he didn’t.

Maguire had two goals before today, and only one was against an elite opponent (a header vs. Chelsea) Today, he seemed determined to get back in the goalscoring mood. He threatened from set-pieces, pulling an incredible save out of Tim Krul with a towering header from a corner, and then late in extra-time, with United desperate to win the game before the lottery of a penalty shootout, Maguire roamed into the box to try and get on the end of crosses.

So when Paul Pogba’s chipped pass was flicked into Anthony Martial’s path and the scrambled clearance fell loose in the box, Maguire pounced. A sweeping left-foot finish sent the ball slamming into the back of the net. A 118th minute game-winning goal! Penalties avoided and United off to Wembley. A true captain’s goal from the United skipper. And what was notable was that after the match, Maguire said he was “disappointed” to have only scored three goals this season and will look to add more strikes in the future. Duck and cover, sports fans, Man Utd’s captain fantastic is out to perform more heroics!

2. Odion Ighalo speaks Solskjaer’s language

Marcus Rashford is a lightning wing-forward who can score wondrous goals, but he’s not a goal poacher. Anthony Martial links play superbly and is improving as a consistent goalscorer, but he’s not a goal poacher. Both of these young men are fabulous footballers more than twice as good as Odion Ighalo, yet the Nigerian is so valuable for Manchester United because he is, you guessed it, a goal poacher.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was a goal poacher as a player, too. Someone who could play, certainly, but whose most useful attribute was having a knack of being in the right place at the right time to supply the right finish. And today Ighalo proved that he speaks Solslkjaer’s language scoring United’s opened with a wholly instinctive and improvised finish when a cross ricocheted into the air.

Ighalo also won the free-kick that got Timm Klose sent off, and showed other moments of solid hold-up play including a deft flick in the build-up to United’s extra-time winner. He’s not just a goal poacher, but his ability to be in position to make the simple finishes is so crucial for a side that can be as profligate as Manchester United. That he’s scored every time he’s started should come as no surprise.

3. Todd Cantwell never stops

A few things in life are constant: gravity, time and Todd Cantwell running around the football field. It’s tiring just watching Cantwell hare about like an overstimulated toddler in an alice band, it’s hard to imagine just how the Englishman not only runs and runs and runs but continues to produce quality football at the end of it all.

Cantwell was a constant thorn in the side of Manchester United, leading Norwich’s break and bamboozling their defenders with his electric movement. He had more shots than anyone else on the field and only Emi Buendia had more tackles in 90 minutes. He was impossibly committed and so it was only fitting that he was the one who equalised, pulling Norwich into the tie with a blistering shot that deceived the United defence with its sensational swerve. It was an incredible goal.

In the end the only thing that could stop Todd Cantwell was his own coach, who subbed him with a minute to play for more defensive cover as Norwich were reduced to 10-men.

4. United need a centre-back

It may seem strange but one of things that jumped out from United’s game against Norwich was just how much the club need another centre-back. Sure, Harry Maguire is great, but he has very glaring weaknesses in terms of his turning speed and tendency to over-commit.

Now these needn’t be fatal flaws, but his first-choice partner at the back is Victor Lindelof, a player who has similar weaknesses and is, for the most part, simply a lesser version of Maguire. Eric Bailly is a very different kind of defender, a more athletic and physical defender with a fantastic tackling technique, someone who would be a great partner for Maguire. Yet when the Ivorian started against Norwich alongside his captain he was, well, not good.

Bailly began his United career in fine form but injury and the managerial stylings of José Mourinho have destroyed him to the point where he looked constantly on the verge of making a mistake against the Canaries. He never looked stable, and when United were chasing a goal against 10-man Norwich, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer preferred to play Nemanja Matic in defence than trust Bailly against the Norwich break.

United need to replace him with someone who can be a better partner for Maguire. Someone who can bail the captain out rather than adding to his and United’s woes.

5. Solskjaer’s siege weapon is incomplete

When you want to break defensive sides down, you need two things: midfield playmakers and width. For much of this season Manchester United didn’t have either, and their form against smaller sides sitting deep bore this out.

Now, however, they have Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes and it has helped them immensely. But Norwich today showed that even playmakers can be stifled well if there is no width in the side.

United had players wide: their full-backs Luke Shaw and Brandon Williams. The problem was, of course, that neither are good in attack. Williams is a fine defender but offers precious little going forward and even though Shaw makes great runs he dawdles on the ball like he’s wondering whether or not he left the oven on. Neither can offer the kind of incision that Norwich’s Max Aarons and Jamal Lewis do, nevermind Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka is well on his way to becoming the kind of flank-dominating full-back United need, but The Red Devils also need someone on the left side of their defence to offer true width, stretch defences out and make United’s siege weapon as deadly as it can be.