Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side could go top of the Premier league with a draw at Burnley on Tuesday
It is the dullest, blandest and most evasive answer in the football manager’s phrasebook, designed to squash interest, stifle debate and purposefully shut down a meaningful conversation. The main problem, though, is it also isn’t true.
When managers say they are all big games in the Premier League – variants of which include, they are all good sides, all important matches, all tough tests, they all have good players, they are all significant fixtures, or the new favourite, it is what it is. They may as well just say I do not want to talk about anything you have just asked me.
It is a polite and long winded way of saying “I do not want to answer the question, so I’ll just form these words into a sentence” no comment.
Managers think it dodges sensitive subjects and skilfully manages expectations. To borrow an analogy from another sport, it is a solid forward defensive shot to a good length delivery, clipping the top of off stump, which sends the ball trickling back to the bowler. You will have to do better than that for me to open up.
You cannot blame Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for playing questions about the importance of this week with a straight bat, particularly when we in the media are bowling under overcast skies on a pitch with uneven bounce.
Having lost his fourth successive semi final to Manchester City last week, a game he had insisted his players were good enough to win and needed to if they were going to shed their nearly men tag, this is another fascinating challenge. Most people still do not think United are good enough to win the Premier League and many suspect he is not the manager who will change that.
This is United’s chance to prove otherwise; the opportunity to convince us the opposite is true. Solskjaer knows exactly how significant Manchester United’s next two fixtures are, how pivotal this week could be for him as manager, the supporters, the owners and the club as a whole.
Avoid defeat at Burnley on Tuesday night and United will go top of the table for the first time since Solskjaer was appointed just over two years ago. They will then have a chance to extend that lead when they play their biggest, most irritating and most dangerous rivals, the reigning champions and second placed Liverpool next weekend.
There will be matches with more definitive outcomes in terms of targets reached and trophies being won. Solskajer was perfectly right to say nothing is decided in January, but this is not just another game or another week. It is not routine, average, run-of-the-mill or normal, regardless of how many different angles you look at it from.
It is understandable that Solskjaer – speaking after his side’s relatively comfortable FA Cup win over Watford, secured via an early goal from Scott McTominay and with a second string starting XI – doesn’t want to delve more deeply into things.
Mainly because no matter what he said, this is a week for action – deeds not words. Nobody will care what he said this time next week, so why bother saying anything at all? Some are always bigger than others, but it is on their outcomes that his and United’s fate hangs not their previews.
‘We’re not even halfway through the season and every game in the Premier League is a challenge,” said Solskjaer, stony faced, as he hopes Victor Lindelof, Luke Shaw, Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes and Eric Bailly, who went off injured against Watford, are all back by the time they travel to Anfield.
“They’re all tests. Every game is a different test, Watford, they gave us a test, Burnley is a test, Liverpool is another. Then you go to Fulham, which is a different test again. No-one will remember how the league table looked like on 12 January 2021.”
The most interesting thing here was the date and so it continued.
“I think it’s great that our fans are excited, and they’re happy with where we are at and that we have this little sense of excitement.
“But then, we’re not even halfway through, so of course every game against Burnley, every game against Liverpool matters a lot anyway – for me: all my eyes are on Tuesday and then let’s see where we’re at after that one.”
Indeed, let us see where Solskajer and United are then. Progress made, excitement builds and hopes soar. Or momentum lost, aspirations stunted and a lot more improvements to make. Sounds like a big week.