Ole Gunnar Solskjær pits wits against Mauricio Pochettino in first big test | Football
“It’s not about me, it’s not about him,” Ole Gunnar Solskjær says, dismissing the notion that his side taking on Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham amounts to some sort of audition for the job of next permanent manager at Manchester United. “We don’t kick a ball at all.”
He would say that, wouldn’t he? And so would Pochettino, most probably. Yet even without the background noise that suggests the Spurs manager is the only name in the frame as far as Headhunters United are concerned, Sunday’s meeting at Wembley would still be both a test and an opportunity for a caretaker who has made a flying start.
There is no doubt Solskjær has made a flying start, because not only is he the first United manager since Sir Matt Busby to win his first five games, he is the only top-flight manager for more than a century to do so by a margin of two or more goals each time. He may simply be reaping the benefit of being a fresh and engaging antidote to José Mourinho’s divisive sarcasm, though anyone who has seen United in recent seasons will appreciate that 16 goals in five matches represents the sort of reboot that several coaches with more established reputations could not manage.
The argument is already being advanced that United have not really played anyone yet, which while a little insulting to the likes of Newcastle and Cardiff is substantially true. All of Solskjær’s opponents have come from the bottom half of the table or the Championship, which is why Spurs amount to the first real test.
Solskjær has a point when he says that Newcastle away was a test, as was winning over the Old Trafford crowd in his first home game, but Tottenham have been one of the form teams all season, not just in the last few weeks. With 48 points after 21 games they could normally expect to be even higher than third, as it is they are doing well to remain in touch with the formidable pace being set by Liverpool and Manchester City.
Tottenham were also the team Mourinho mentioned when illustrating the difficulty of regaining United’s dominance. In the old days, he suggested, one or all of Harry Kane, Dele Alli or Son Heung-min might have been running out in red by now. While the point is debatable, there is no denying Spurs have some highly covetable players and a style that many a Premier League side would like to copy.
That is where the opportunity lies for Solskjær, for he too likes to send out a side to attack, and United supporters will dare to hope that his first crack at a top-four side might not be an exercise in containment and caution. If Solskjær can match Pochettino at his own game his coaching stock would rise accordingly, regardless of what may or may not happen next season. The caretaker understands the reason for all the speculation linking the Spurs manager with a move north – his team plays the way United would like to play. “He’s done a very good job,” Solskjær says. “It is easier to play in an attacking way when you have the right players.”
United have quality attacking players just waiting to be let off the leash, which is effectively what Solskjær has done, rejuvenating Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku. So far so good, but when quality meets quality a little more attention to detail might be required.
Solskjær has been looking at the stats. “We’ve been managing to outsprint opponents,” he says of his first five games. “Because we have been playing against teams at the bottom of the table that’s a very big compliment to my players. One of the best compliments you can get as a coach is when the other manager says: ‘Your boys worked hard,’ and that has been happening. I am pleased to be in charge of a Manchester United side that outruns teams from the lower part of the table. It’s not a coincidence that the stats have improved in the last few weeks because we’ve had a focus on going forward quickly.”
Outsprinting Tottenham will be a different matter, especially as the peerless Son will play at Wembley before joining South Korea for the Asia Cup in Dubai, but as Solskjær and every United follower knows the emphasis on going forward quickly has been missing for some time.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s preference for all-out attack has perhaps been overstated over the years, but even on a restrained day in the glory years United were never as restricted and reactive as they would become under Louis van Gaal and Mourinho.
That chapter in the club’s history now appears to be closed, with Solskjær specifically recruited because he is committed to the club’s more adventurous traditions. Currently on something of an adventure himself, he has at least reached base camp on the managerial mountain climb by successfully bringing players and supporters into line.
How high he can go might not depend on this weekend, even if the United succession will be an elephant in the room at Wembley, but by the time Solskjær has played Arsenal, Paris Saint-Germain and Liverpool in different competitions over the coming six weeks, the club should have a clearer view of which direction is forward.