Manchester United suffered a humiliating defeat the King Power Stadium seven years ago under Louis van Gaal – and under-pressure boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be keen to avoid a similar scenario on Saturday
When asked why he opposed Solskjaer’s appointment in 2018, the former Red Devils coach told The Guardian in 2019: “Manchester United is one of the biggest clubs in the world that needs a manager with experience and not a manager who has trained at one or two teams and on a lower level.”
Inexperienced he may be, Solskjaer would perhaps point to the fact he has now been in the job the longest out of any manager appointed after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
He could also mention that heavily experienced coaches such as Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho failed to win a Premier League title in their respective reigns at the club. They did both win trophies, though, while the Norwegian is yet to bring home silverware in his 34 months as a manager.
But it turns out they may have some common ground after all. Solskjaer’s men will take on the Leicester City on Saturday at the King Power Stadium knowing that defeat would put his position under increased scrutiny.
Of course, Van Gaal has been there before — and the Dutchman might have some advice about how quickly things can change at Old Trafford after seeing his side crumble in the same fixture back in 2014.
He watched his Manchester United side destroy QPR 4-0 with consummate ease the week before, with his star-studded frontline including Angel Di Maria and Robin van Persie shining.
They appeared to be heading towards a similar result at the King Power, with Van Persie, Di Maria and Ander Herrera on target to put the visitors in control.
The Argentine’s effort, a dink over Kasper Schmeichel from 25 yards, was delightful and has been shown repeatedly as a representation of the entertaining nature of this eight-goal thriller.
Leicester had scored early on through Leonardo Ulloa and got back in the game through a David Nugent penalty. Then it was veteran midfielder Esteban Cambiasso who got in on the act and Jamie Vardy put Leicester in front, before Ulloa notched his second of the afternoon with a penalty.
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With 29 minutes to go, Man United were leading 3-1. They were comfortable.
By the time the final whistle had sounded, it was 5-3 to the hosts.
It marked the first time in history Manchester United had thrown away a two-goal lead before going on to lose — and Van Gaal was visibly lost for words.
“I don’t want to criticise personal errors because that happens in a game, but the team made errors because we didn’t keep possession of the ball and that was our main mistake I think.
“I don’t think that it is the weakness of the defence. It is the weakness of the defensive organisation of the team and we know we have to do better.
“When you lose the ball so easily, you cannot defend. In this game after 3-1 you can’t make these errors. We need to continue and improve.”
At the time, Leicester were very much battling against relegation and such a collapse highlighted the cracks in the foundations of the squad left by Sir Alex Ferguson.
The fans were not impressed with the football in show either, with Van Gaal’s formations extremely rigid and disciplined in their shape, rather than encouraging free-flowing, attacking football. Even his big-money signing, Di Maria, was finding it difficult to settle in Manchester and it affected his form on the pitch.
For some United fans, worrying parallels that can be drawn between those times in 2014 and now under Solskjaer. They are failing to win games expected of them, struggling to muster enough shots and playing without a true identity.
Solskjaer should be credited for bringing at least some form of stability to the club and attempting to integrate an attacking mentality this season. He has also assembled a side filled with young British talent, with youngsters such as Mason Greenwood, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Jadon Sancho able to showcase their talents.
Of course, it helps that the 48-year-old has been given a new level of backing that his predecessors lacked, reflected by the signings of Cristiano Ronaldo, Raphael Varane and Sancho this summer.
And while there is nothing negative to say about their domestic form on paper — they are only two points behind league leaders Chelsea — there has been a drop in performance in recent weeks.
One only needs to compare the money spent on their respective backlines to show the difference seven years without a league title makes at Old Trafford. Van Gaal had Rafael da Silva, Jonny Evans, Tyler Blackett, Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind at a combined cost of £30m.
Solskjaer, meanwhile, has been able to reshape his backline. Wan-Bissaka, Varane and Harry Maguire were all purchased in his time at the club, costing a cool £172m.
If there were lessons to be learned from the defeat, it was that United had to win the game — no matter what it took. Whether it was their own complacency or Leicester’s sheer desire to win, they came unstuck too quickly.
Solskjaer can ill-afford a repeat of that performance more than seven years later. Since thrashing Leeds United and Newcastle 5-1 and 4-1 respectively, his side have gone off the boil and suffered some morale-damaging defeats along the way.
Some have argued if it wasn’t for Ronaldo’s crucial goals — five in his first seven games — Solskjaer would be facing the sack. Yet not even the Portuguese could save United from unacceptable defeats against West Ham and Young Boys.
There are reasons to feel optimistic heading into the fixture with Leicester, the first being that the Foxes have started the season poorly.
Since the start of September, the only team they have beaten is Millwall in the Carabao Cup. They have more recently stuttered to 2-2 draws against Burnley and Crystal Palace, as well as losing at Brighton.
The other is that, under Solskjaer, United are unbeaten in their three trips to the Midlands, winning two of the three meetings.
But this time around, he will not have his first-choice pairing available for selection after Maguire (calf) and Varane (groin) suffered injuries over the past fortnight. Starting a must-win game with his backup centre-backs is far from an ideal situation for Solskjaer, even if the brilliance of Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba can save them from at any moment.
It cannot be forgotten that only recently he signed a contact to 2024, showing that the club are sticking with him for the near future. Perhaps they view their incremental progress as a sign that success will be returning to the Red Devils in the near future.
But this could be a sliding doors moment for Solskjaer: win and his side are back on the right path, silencing those who doubt whether he deserves his position in the dugout.
But a similar defeat to what Van Gaal witnessed seven years ago and the board’s faith could be put to the ultimate test.