Manchester United’s not so secret weapon

by Omar Soliman

Every team needs at least one super sub in their armoury  They have to be deployed expertly and the art of the well-timed substitution is one to be marvelled at. They say that failing to prepare is preparing to fail, which largely rings true, but best laid plans can sometimes come awry too. At Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson has become the master of marshalling game changers from the bench. From Mark Robins allegedly saving his job to Javier Hernandez grabbing a second half hat-trick to claim victory against Aston Villa at the weekend.

But what does it take to be a super sub? Arguably the most potent would be Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Few players can study a match as it unfolds and know how to step in seamlessly and make an impact. Knowing where the gaps will be and how best to exploit them. Most have an inkling yet Solskjaer had a sixth sense to be in the right place at the right time. He was never the quickest of strikers yet his intelligent, expertly timed runs would often find enough room to then execute a ruthless finish.

It is little wonder that this single minded attention to detail and ability to know how to change a match has led The Baby Faced Assassin to a successful debut spell in management. Little wonder too that his tactical nous has led Molde to a second successive league championship, the first two titles in the clubs history. Little wonder also that several Premier League chairmen would like him at the helm of their club and that Solskjaer has turned down all advances to remain.

Of course, his greatest contribution to Manchester United was in 1998/99 when he had the foresight to stay despite an offer from Tottenham Hotspur. Just as then you get the same feeling that this team could mount a similar challenge on multiple fronts. Of note are the numerous comeback victories yet the stellar forward line has to be taken into account. Against Braga it was Van Persie making the difference. As seen against Aston Villa, even him and Wayne Rooney can endure poor performances allowing Hernandez to shine. When Manchester United needed a goal and a change of approach, there was an alternative on the bench.

With this team you get the impression that while they are likely to concede there are goals aplenty at the other end. You score two, so what? We’ll score three. Look no further than Aston Villa last weekend. Despite the deficit, at no point during the game did it seem that Manchester United would not win. Call it arrogance, call it familiarity but even at 0-2 you simply knew if one went in the game was as good as won. With Hernandez on the pitch any sniff of a chance could result in a goal and so it proved.

You also get the impression that the opposition know that there is no such thing as a safe lead too. Look at the last two league games against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. This season, with the hosts rallying to equalise then reduced to ten men, Sir Alex Ferguson could have hedged his bets and settled for a point away from home at a major rival. That he had confidence in his attacking options bore fruit as Hernandez popped up for the winner. A bold choice.

Yet a super sub does not even have to be a striker. Last season, with Manchester United 0-3 down and possibly on the wrong end of a rout on came Paul Scholes. In this case, instead of another striker what was ultimately needed was a change of tempo, a bit of nous and a modicum of control in midfield. Calm down a rampant Chelsea and holes will appear then chances will come. And they did, as Hernandez grabbed another late goal.

As the exploits of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer prove, the art of changing a game from the bench could prove pivotal by the end of this campaign. The decision on whether to shut up shop and play for a point or aim for all three rests with the manager and the options he has at his disposal. Whether he chooses the tempo controlling Paul Scholes or the goal grabbing Hernandez, Sir Alex Ferguson has several game changers to call upon and what a difference they could make this season.

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