Almost exactly two years ago, Jose Mourinho had trudged off the pitch at Anfield after a dismal performance by Manchester United saw them lose 3-1 to Liverpool.
On Sunday, facing rivals just as bitter, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer guided his side to a 6-2 victory over Leeds United to prompt legitimate talk of a potential title challenge.
It has been a long time since United have been touted as serious contenders but, after a bizarre start to the campaign, anything could happen in this strangest of seasons.
The man himself did not want to rule on whether his tenure so far should be considered a success ahead of his two-year anniversary at the helm on December 19.
“I hate talking about what I’ve done and where we’re at. I don’t enjoy that bit,” Solskjaer said after last week’s 3-2 victory at Sheffield United. “I always look forward and I know there’s a lot of work to be done still to get to the standard and level I want. That’s what we’re working on every single day.
“But I’ve really enjoyed these two years, even though games like this make my hair turn even greyer very quickly!”
And there have been plenty of stressful moments over the past two years. A month barely goes by without Solskjaer’s credentials being placed under scrutiny again, and he has been tipped for the sack more times than any other manager in the league.
Many pundits are still debating whether he is tactically astute enough to put United back on their perch. Certainly, he was never initially thought to be the long-term solution to all of the problems the club has encountered since legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013.
No disrespect to his achievements in the Norwegian top flight with Molde, but Solskjaer’s CV was hardly comparable to the glittering success stories of those who came before him.
But, then again, Mourinho and his predecessor, Louis van Gaal, had failed at Old Trafford. Both were Champions League-winning coaches, but neither proved the right fit for United.
Those miserable last few weeks of Mourinho’s tenure left the board with little choice but to sever ties with the Portuguese. Ask anyone that works at Carrington and they will tell you that Solskjaer’s arrival was like a breath of fresh air sweeping through the club’s training base.
The mood changed, the atmosphere was improved and with it came a dramatic upturn of results, as United went on a run of 14 wins in 19 games, which included that historic comeback win against Paris Saint-Germain at Parc des Princes.
The contract was promptly put on the table, the dream job had been secured.
What followed for the rest of that season mirrored much of Solskjaer’s tenure so far: thrilling highs and devastating lows. Always one step forward, two steps back.
The last few weeks of that first season in charge were as bad as the first few had been good – they won just two of their last nine league games and finished in the Europa League places.
Last season was undoubtedly an improvement, as they finished with a flourish to claim third place – only the second time they have finished that high in the table since Ferguson bid farewell with a title triumph.
Significantly, Solskjaer secured a return to the Champions League with the kind of thrilling counter-attacking football that was once synonymous with the Scot’s best United sides.
United’s involvement in the competition may have ended in bitter disappointment but, on the flip side, they are currently third in the Premier League table, and will go second, just two points behind leaders Liverpool, if they win their game in hand.
It is, thus, difficult to say conclusively that United are on the road to glory. But they are, at least, moving in the right direction again.
The transfer strategy has certainly changed since Solskjaer arrived. It has been a case of trying to offload unwanted players on massive wages and bringing in younger, fresher, hungrier talent with an eye on the future.
Alexis Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku, Antonio Valencia, Marouane Fellaini, Ashley Young, Chris Smalling and Matteo Darmian all left on permanent deals. Andreas Pereira is out on loan while Marcos Rojo and Jesse Lingard are edging closer to the exit.
Bruno Fernandes is obviously the pick of the signings, with the Portugal international having had a transformative effect on the team since his arrival in January, but several others have also impressed. Indeed, it is hard to say that Solskjaer has made a truly bad signing and the squad is undoubtedly in a better place than it was two years ago.
Granted, there is still work to be done and areas to address, but that is acknowledged at the club and there is commitment to back Solskjaer again in the summer window.
The integration of more academy prospects to the first-team squad is also viewed as a feather in Solskjaer’s cap. A whopping 11 graduates from the club’s famed youth system have been handed their professional debuts by the former striker, and even more have been training with the first team.
However, if Solskjaer has restored United’s reputation for exciting football, as well as their long and proud tradition of putting faith in young players, his team is still suffering with something of an identity crisis.
They seem to be reliant on scoring via quick transitions and struggle to break teams down who sit deep. It was recently put to Solskjaer that perhaps his players did not know their roles well enough because he changed system too often, but he refuted the suggestion, claiming after the loss at RB Leipzig that he had only switched system four times in 22 games.
“That isn’t bad in terms of consistency of a normal shape,” he argued. “That’s what we work on more or less every day. Some details will change within the same system, as it depends who is playing, while sometimes you look at the opposition and you look at where you need players with different qualities.
“But, overall, I think the players are coping well with what is asked of them.”
However, in the win at West Ham, Solskjaer’s players played like a bunch of strangers for the first hour before mounting an impressive comeback. Meanwhile, even the manager admitted after victory at Sheffield United that he was left bemused by the fact that his players had conceded yet another early goal by failing to follow specific pre-match instructions, which had also been the case at Leipzig.
Solskjaer took responsibility for failing to get his points across but, in fairness, sometimes the finger of blame does have to be pointed at players for starting sluggishly or failing to follow their boss’ plan.
There are obviously outstanding issues but there is no denying that United, on their day, produce some of the most exciting attacking play in Europe, so Solskjaer deserves credit for his role in the return of the ‘United Way’ – particularly after the tedium of the football played under Van Gaal and Mourinho.
It is worth noting that the team have scored five or more goals in a single game on seven occasions during Solskjaer’s 111 games in charge – they only did so twice between Ferguson’s departure in 2013 and Mourinho’s sacking five years later.
It is quite clear United are not the finished article. Gary Neville described their league position and talk of a title challenge as “bizarre” and you can see where the former United full-back is coming from. The incessant inconsistency of the performance level makes it seem ludicrous that they are even in the discussion.
However, one thing is for certain: they are in a better place than they were this time last year, when they sat eighth in the table, 24 points off the top at Christmas.
The board, then, will believe that they were right to resist strong calls to replace Solskjaer with Mauricio Pochettino when United were struggling. There was an expectancy and a need for results to improve – and they have.
The major task now, of course, is to address that issue of inconsistency.
Until they do, the only certainty surrounding United is that Solskjaer will remain locked in an endless cycle of speculation over his credentials – and his future.