With hindsight Ole Gunner Solskjær might concede there have been better weeks to talk, a little disdainfully, about the “ego” of trophy-winning managers.
In a show of commendable humility, Solskjær’s Manchester United duly exited the FA Cup at the quarter-final stage, another moment of not-quite-there to follow three semi-final dead ends. Look on my selflessness and tremble. For I am the most humble.
Leicester City were the real story at the King Power stadium, and hugely deserving of their 3-1 win. Kelechi Iheanacho fired the bullets and had a fine all-round game. Youri Tielemans dominated the centre in a game shot through with high-class midfielders, his performance and his second half goal the high note of this game.
Brendan Rodgers’s gameplan was executed to perfection: press high from the start, then play on the break as United chased. This iteration of Leicester City is something to be cherished – versatile, tactically fluent, and built out of brilliantly sourced low-cost parts.
If Leicester were the better team, and on the league table favourites coming into his tie, then Solskjær deserves his own mention for fielding a weakened starting XI in a live game two steps from Wembley.
United were tired after Thursday’s trip to Italy. Solskjær rotated with a view to easing that fatigue. But this was still a second-string team in one of two competitions they can actually win, with Bruno Fernandes and Luke Shaw on the bench and Donny van de Beek asked, out of the blue, to start an actual, real game of football.
It is of course unfair to dwell on those offhand remarks. Solskjær is right: there is real progress in this team. Plus it is refreshing to hear him showing this kind of edge in public.
But it is also a pretty strange position to take. Football at this level is about the kind of moments Solskjær knows so well from his own career. Ask a supporter if they want a nice, well-behaved process or a brash, showy day once a year leaping around waving a piece of tin. Both would be great. But the winning has its own special tang.
United never looked like winning this game. The opening goal arrived on 24 minutes. It came Fred-wrapped, made by a disastrous backpass that turned into a lovely nudged through ball for Iheanacho, who finished expertly. But it was also the culmination of something, as the red shirts were unsettled by the sheer vigour of Leicester’s well-drilled pressing.
United equalised before half-time through Mason Greenwood, without altering the gravity of the game. And with six minutes of the second half gone, Leicester were back in front. This was the key moment, a goal scored, directed and executive produced by Tielemans, who spent the game reeling off a high-class super-cut of all-round midfield expertise. This is the kind of footballer who really could end up playing wherever he wants.
It was an unusual goal in its own way, just as Tielemans looks at times like a throwback to the recent past. Here is a midfielder who likes to drive from deep, not a pivot, or a shield, or an inside-forward. Instead, Tielemans does everything.
He is a distinctive finisher too. It takes a special kind of footballer to shoot powerfully on the move, to switch from midfield craft to attacking sniper in the same run without breaking stride, a skill that brings to mind Steven Gerrard in the Premier League, or Bryan Robson before him.
This was a perfect example, as Tielemans ran from the halfway line, helped by a simple one-two to escape the semi-mobile midfield obstacle known as Nemanja Matic. Matic has many qualities. Turning around is not one of them. Here he eased the reverse thrusters on like a 600-berth passenger ferry, and could only watch as Tielemans ate up the empty green space, then drove a low shot into the far corner.
Iheanacho added a second, heading in smartly after a corner. And that was pretty much that. Leicester will play Southampton in the semi-final. United are free to focus on the Europa League or – as Solskjær insisted – the distant pursuit of Manchester City.
And for all Leicester’s brilliance here, it was hard to avoid a sense of opponents with thoughts elsewhere. This is a disappointment. There is no doubt that within the modern Manchester United, and from the ownership down, there is a sense that existing profitably, occupying a playing spot within the European financial elite, is the first priority.
But should the Europa League slip away, it will be four years without a trophy now. The last time that happened was the lull between FA Cups in the late 1980s. Before that you’re looking at the post-Busby void. Manchester United is a romantic idea, a way of playing, a revenue behemoth. But it is above all a machine for winning trophies. The regime that forgets that, or indeed openly belittles it, is treading a novel path.
Plus of course these FA Cup quarter-finals are more than the usual spring afterthought. At the end of the most bizarrely empty year in football’s modern history, these games are an extended play-off towards something genuinely mouthwatering, which is the chance to play at Wembley in front of actual, real-life supporters, to win a trophy in the way they’re meant to be won.
That chance will now go to Leicester City, and deservedly so; both for the performance, and for the feeling, from the first kick, that players and manager really did want this unconditionally.