A little more than a year later, here we are again. The gap between the two has grown. There is no prospect of Solskjaer’s suffering the same fate as his predecessor, of course, something that is perhaps proof of how far United has fallen: defeat to Liverpool can now be shrugged off as something that happens, something to be expected, the natural order of things.
In part, that is because United has found a remarkable tendency in the last year or so to savor those small victories: the ones that do not add up to any tangible achievement, but the ones that offer an illusion of hope, a mirage of progress.
The most egregious example came after a defeat to Manchester City in the first leg of the league cup semifinals earlier this month. The fact that City fielded a full-strength team, Solskjaer said, showed how seriously it took Manchester United, how far the team that used to cast a shadow over not only its city but the country has come.
But perhaps the best is Solskjaer’s ability — a happy knack — to concoct a win just when he needs it most. It happened against Tottenham, and then City, back in December; there had been a sense, at the start of that week, that two defeats might force the club’s board to act. It did not need to. Solskjaer claimed two small victories. United lost at Watford, then adrift at the bottom of the Premier League, not long after, but by then the storm had passed.
This is the cycle United finds itself trapped in; it is, as it happens, one that Liverpool fans will remember. There is always a glimmer of hope: a young player coming through, a system that seems promising, a game in which things seem to click, some small victory to cling to. It is beguiling, and it is appealing, and it is understandable, but it is also a distraction.
You fixate on the glimmer, and lose sight of where you are standing, where you are going, how far you are falling. Solskjaer, as he reviewed the game, felt Manchester United — the biggest club in England, and at the start of the decade a serial winner of trophies at home and abroad — lacked just one thing. “We just didn’t have that quality,” he said, as though that had to be expected, as though it might suddenly reappear, as though that was entirely normal. Perhaps it is, now. Perhaps that is why the smile has gone.