Ole Gunnar Solskjaer got off to a perfect start as Manchester United’s interim manager with a 5-1 thrashing of his former club Cardiff.
The former United striker succeeded Jose Mourinho, who was sacked in midweek, and got his first win courtesy of a performance that will encourage United fans as some of their more marginalised talent came to the fore in a performance full of attacking intent.
Marcus Rashford’s stunning free-kick, a deflected effort from Ander Herrera and a fabulous team goal by Anthony Martial effectively won the contest before half-time for a United side inspired by the recalled Paul Pogba, who had a hand in all three first-half goals.
Victor Camarasa’s penalty briefly gave Cardiff hope as they reduced the arrears to 2-1, but Jesse Lingard won and scored a contentious second-half penalty and then rounded Neil Etheridge to tap into an empty net at the death to make the result safe.
It is the first time United have scored five goals in a Premier League game since legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s last game in charge – a 5-5 draw with West Brom in May 2013.
A more attacking United than under Mourinho?
All eyes were on Solskjaer’s first selection as United boss, and Pogba was included in the starting line-up.
The World Cup winner and club record signing had been a forlorn-looking substitute for the past three Premier League matches, but returned to a more attack-minded United XI.
Pogba was joined by French forward Martial, who made his 100th Premier League appearance, with Romelu Lukaku away on compassionate leave.
Luke Shaw and Phil Jones returned to a defence that had conceded 29 goals already this term – their worst record since 1962 – as Solskjaer made four changes.
Pogba was involved in the thick of the action inside three minutes, winning a free-kick from Aron Gunnarsson that would give the Norwegian the perfect start to life in the United dugout, Rashford brilliantly finding the bottom corner.
Solskjaer was punching the air in delight with less than four minutes on the clock.
The contest proved an ideal opportunity for Pogba to send a message on the pitch rather than on social media and he certainly appeared less inhibited as the visitors passed with a good tempo and closed down effectively.
United were superior throughout the first period and it was no surprise when they doubled their advantage just before the half-hour mark when Pogba picked out Herrera, whose speculative effort nicked off Greg Cunningham and gave Neil Etheridge no chance.
However, United’s defensive fragility reappeared before the interval, with Rashford handballing carelessly when he moved his upper arm towards the ball under little pressure and Camarasa slammed home the penalty.
But in the end, United made light work of a Cardiff side, who had won their past four home games, with attacking flair throughout.
Solskjaer’s return intrigues both sets of supporters
There was a keen sense of intrigue among both sets of supporters about the presence of Solskjaer in the United dugout.
His appointment as Mourinho’s temporary successor caused raised eyebrows in South Wales after his disappointing spell managing the Bluebirds in 2014, which included a relegation from the Premier League.
Solskjaer, 45, is contracted to return to his role as manager at Norwegian club Molde next summer, but Cardiff supporters remember him for a disastrous nine-month spell in charge in the Welsh capital.
Solskjaer scored 126 goals in 366 appearances during his 11 years at Old Trafford and is best remembered for scoring the winner in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich in 1999, along with collecting six Premier League titles.
The sense of goodwill from United’s travelling supporters towards the man they called the ‘Baby-Faced Assassin’ was obvious – they chanted about their temporary boss from well before kick-off and gave him a rapturous reception when the sides emerged at Cardiff City Stadium.
Before the game, Cardiff boss Neil Warnock had said Solskjaer “could not lose” in his new position. The former striker was keen to get his messages across, moving to the edge of his technical area several times to deliver advice and encourage his team to find more width.
He would have felt slightly unsettled when Cardiff reduced the arrears to 2-1, but a fine team move a minute later saw Martial exchange passes with Pogba and Lingard and fire past Etheridge to give United deserved daylight at the interval.
Cardiff’s fine run at home comes to an end
The Bluebirds had won four of their past five Premier League home games, yet the omens were not good for a side chasing a first victory over United in 58 years.
Warnock has failed to beat United in any of his previous seven encounters and, with a two-goal deficit at half-time, that never looked like changing.
United dominated at the start of the second half and Lingard’s penalty killed the contest, with United close to adding further goals through Rashford, Phil Jones and Pogba, before Lingard did add the fifth after keeping his composure when clean through to round Etheridge and slot home.
Man of the match – Paul Pogba.
‘Football is easy with good players’ – What they said
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer: “Football is easy if you’ve got good players! They are a great bunch of players and their quality is unbelievable.
“I arrived on Wednesday night and only had Thursday and Friday with the players. Wayne Rooney texted me and gave me some advice – so it must be down to him! He told me to make them play football, enjoy themselves and be Manchester United.
“The foundation was in the defending. I thought the two centre-backs and two full-backs were brilliant.”
Cardiff manager Neil Warnock: “If you’d told me at the start of this season that we’d be out of the bottom three at Christmas I’d have snapped your hand off.
“We’ve got two big games coming up [at Crystal Palace and Leicester]. We know we need to improve our away form. I wasn’t disappointed in the effort, it was just misdirected at times.
“At half-time I still thought we had a chance. I thought if we get the next goal we might get something. It’s very disappointing.”
Scoring big on the first day – the best of the stats
- Since Ferguson left the club, four of the five different managers to take charge of United have seen their side score three or more goals in their first Premier League game (Moyes 4, Mourinho 3, Giggs 4 and Solskjaer 5).
- Warnock suffered his 50th Premier League defeat, in what was his 92nd game in the competition – only Mick McCarthy (79), Danny Wilson (87) and Gary Megson (91) have reached 50 defeats in fewer games managed.
- Cardiff have lost each of their past 14 Premier League games against ‘big six’ opponents, conceding 45 goals in this run.
- Martial has been directly involved in 70 goals for United in all competitions (45 goals, 25 assists); the most of any player for the club since his debut in September 2015.
- Rashford has had a hand in more Premier League goals this season than any other United player (9 – four goals and five assists).
- United’s third goal against Cardiff – scored by Anthony Martial – was the 500th netted in the Premier League this season.
- Martial made his 100th appearance for United in the Premier League, becoming just the fourth Frenchman to reach this tally for the club after Eric Cantona, Mikael Silvestre and Patrice Evra.
Cardiff travel to Crystal Palace on Wednesday, December 26 (15:00 GMT), while Manchester United take on Huddersfield at Old Trafford (15:00).