Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is convinced Manchester United have developed significantly since suffering three semi-final defeats in 2019-20 as they prepare to host rivals Manchester City in the last four of the EFL Cup.
Had things gone a little differently last term, Man United might have ended the campaign with three trophy successes, breaking Solskjaer’s duck as the club’s boss.
But, United lost 3-1 to Chelsea in the FA Cup semis, suffered a late 2-1 defeat to Sevilla in the Europa League and fell at the same stage of the EFL Cup to City, losing 3-2 on aggregate.
The elimination by City was particularly chastening given the manner of the first-leg home loss, as United were swept aside and somewhat fortunate to only lose 3-1 – the 1-0 away win in the second meeting was insufficient to save their hopes.
But it could be argued there is a different aura to this United side. They are level on 33 points with pacesetters Liverpool in the Premier League but have played one game less, and they head into Wednesday’s game unbeaten in seven across all competitions.
The EFL Cup semi-finals this season are limited to one-game affairs rather than being split over two, and Solskjaer is adamant United are a different animal.
“When you get to a semi, you’ve done a lot of good work to get there and naturally you’re playing against better and better opposition,” Solskjaer told reporters.
“I think we’ve improved immensely in a year since the last semi [against City] and even when we were in Europe in August.
“For me, it’s a step closer to get to the final, we’ve developed a lot, it’s easy to say, ‘have we learned?’ But it’s not about if we’ve learnt, it’s about some fine margins in those semi-finals as well.
“When you win games of football, you don’t think about it’s a semi-final or a normal game or a league game or a quarter final, you just think about this game and want to win it.”
United have faced City six times since Solskjaer was initially installed as Jose Mourinho’s replacement in December 2018 and, perhaps rather surprisingly, has the edge over Pep Guardiola in their head-to-head with three wins to two.
Their most recent meeting, just under a month ago, was a rather cagier 0-0 draw that had few conclusions drawn from it by most, though Solskjaer still felt there were signs of United’s progression.
They have every reason to be wary again, however – City have progressed from their previous five EFL Cup semis and lost only twice in 23 games in the competition under Guardiola.
“I’ve seen progress,” Solskjaer continued. “Sometimes the results don’t show the whole picture of the game, some of our counter-attacking goals in the wins we’ve had have been brilliant; in the league away when we won, we could have scored four or five in a 10- or 15-minute period.
“A few counter attacks there were out of this world but we had less control of the ball and defended fantastically. I think the last game was more or less 50-50 in possession, maybe a more cagey game from both teams but still I felt that was a progression having stayed more in the game.
“You never know what kind of system he [Guardiola] is going to come up with but you know you’ve got to defend really well against Man City.
“It’s hard to keep the ball in their half, they find a way of overloading, so you’ve got to be brave, compact, trust your players.
“When we have the ball, we have to be able to keep it, play out of their press because they’re one of the quickest to put the counter pressure on and win the ball high up.
“So, it’s a balance. We’ve found that balance. We didn’t have the ‘X factor’ last game, maybe because they were a little bit more cagey and set up to counter attack more as well.
“They’ve been some fascinating games and I feel we’ve got closer and closer and results sometimes you can’t control.”