Ole Gun­nar Sol­sk­jaer shows there is sub­stance be­hind the smiles

The Guardian Australia - - Sport - Jonathan Wil­son

He could smile, be gra­cious, look pleased to be there and de­liver the let­ter U in a pleas­ing Scandi-Manc. He could make some of the best foot­ballers in the world seem happy to be paid mil­lion of pounds a year to play for one of the big­gest clubs in the world – a feat of psy­cho­log­i­cal alchemy quite be­yond his pre­de­ces­sor. But could Ole Gun­nar Sol­sk­jaer do it on a chilly Sun­day evening in Jan­uary, against one of the Premier League’s sharper tac­ti­cal minds? It turns out, just about, that he could.

When Tot­ten­ham play as they started on Sun­day, with a mid­field di­a­mond, there is a vul­ner­a­bil­ity wide, be­hind the full-backs. Sol­sk­jaer ex­ploited that, set­ting Mar­cus Rash­ford and An­thony Mar­tial to peel wide and at­tack those ar­eas, which meant Jesse Lin­gard ef­fec­tively ended up as a false nine be­tween them. Few teams go to Wem­b­ley and take on Tot­ten­ham with two up front, the re­sult of which was the two cen­tre-backs, Jan Ver­tonghen and Toby Alder­weireld, re­peat­edly find­ing them­selves two-on-two, a sit­u­a­tion in which few mod­ern de­fend­ers are com­fort­able.

Per­haps Sol­sk­jaer’s acu­ity shouldn’t be a sur­prise. Af­ter all, he made a ca­reer of sit­ting on the bench work­ing out where he should best tar­get his runs – all he’s do­ing now is ad­vis­ing oth­ers rather than his own legs where to make them. Sir Alex Fer­gu­son al­ways said, for that rea­son, that he ex­pected Sol­sk­jaer to be a suc­cess­ful man­ager.

But this was also a Fer­gu­so­nian strat­egy, in its bold­ness, risk­ing los­ing the mid­field bat­tle, and in the fact that he al­ways en­cour­aged for­wards to at­tack from out to in, some­thing that reached its peak in 2007-08 when Cris­tiano Ron­aldo was the cen­tral fig­ure drop­ping deep and Car­los Tevez and Wayne Rooney ex­ploited the space he cre­ated from the flanks.

Sol­sk­jaer’s time at Cardiff per­haps de­serves re­assess­ment: he would not be the first man­ager to find their com­pe­tence un­fairly ques­tioned af­ter fail­ing to over­come enor­mous dif­fer­en­tials of re­sources and be­ing rel­e­gated.

Per­haps it’s too easy to see ev­i­dence of Sol­sk­jaer’s work in Rash­ford’s fin­ish, to say there are signs he has brought tech­ni­cal im­prove­ment, but in that strike, driven low across Hugo Lloris into the bot­tom cor­ner, and his goal at New­cas­tle, there is the sense of Rash­ford, a weight of crit­i­cal in­spec­tion lifted from his shoul­ders, blos­som­ing as a for­ward.

Early in the sec­ond half at Wem­b­ley came Mauri­cio Po­chet­tino’s re­sponse. Tot­ten­ham aban­doned the di­a­mond and switched to a 4-2-3-1. Son He­ung­min and Chris­tian Erik­sen moved wide, Spurs’ full-backs dropped deeper. The space into which Rash­ford and Mar­tial had romped was gone. It be­came about hang­ing on. Sol­sk­jaer couldn’t check the shift in mo­men­tum. Only the ex­cel­lence of David de Gea pre­vented Spurs not just lev­el­ling but win­ning.

Po­chet­tino called the sec­ond half the best 45 min­utes Tot­ten­ham had pro­duced un­der him – which may have been de­signed as a re­minder to those who mat­ter that he had not been tac­ti­cally out­wit­ted but was also pos­si­bly true. In terms of the bat­tle of wits in the bench, then, a draw.

But the gap from Spurs to the lead­ers, Liver­pool, is now nine points. Six games have been lost this sea­son. De­feat at home to United fol­lows home re­verses against Liver­pooland Manch­ester City. They are not ti­tle chal­lengers and prob­a­bly never were. The squad is be­gin­ning to look a lit­tle thread­bare: Harry Winks and Moussa Sis­soko looked weary in Tues­day’s Carabao Cup semi-fi­nal but here they were again, asked to drag them­selves through an­other game un­til the French­man suf­fered a mus­cu­lar prob­lem just be­fore half-time. Winks, per­haps not sur­pris­ingly, was the only other Tot­ten­ham player sub­sti­tuted, with­drawn af­ter 81 min­utes. With Eric Dier and Vic­tor Wanyama in­jured and Mousa Dem­bélé seem­ingly on his way to Bei­jing Guoan, there are few op­tions.

At­tack­ing re­serves may soon be an is­sue as well, de­pend­ing how se­ri­ous Harry Kane’s an­kle in­jury is, par­tic­u­larly with Son join­ing up with South Korea at the Asian Cup. Per­haps this is an un­usual set of cir­cum­stances. Most clubs, af­ter all, would strug­gle with five first-team­ers out. But it does, yet again, high­light the lack of trans­fer spend­ing in the sum­mer and raise the ques­tion of just what, re­al­is­ti­cally, is achiev­able at Spurs. The mood, though, seems sub­tly to have shifted and while it would be mis­lead­ing to say there is any cer­tainty Po­chet­tino will stay at Tot­ten­ham in the sum­mer, that does now seem the slight prob­a­bil­ity.

That means United will have to con­sider their op­tions and at least con­sider op­tions be­yond Po­chet­tino. But as each week goes by, the man in pos­ses­sion is look­ing a stronger and stronger can­di­date. There are still ques­tions, of course – can Sol­sk­jaer de­vise a way of con­trol­ling a game against a top side? Does he have a mode other than fire­fight? Can he shut a game down? – but six suc­ces­sive wins is a fine way to start, and al­ready he has demon­strated that he is more than just a mood-en­hancer, that there is sub­stance be­hind the smiles.

Ole Gun­nar Sol­sk­jaer salutes Manch­ester United’s sup­port­ers af­ter the 1-0 vic­tory over Tot­ten­ham at Wem­b­ley on Sun­day. Pho­to­graph: Richard Calver/REX/Shut­ter­stock

Mar­cus ahead against Rash­ford Spurs. fires Along Manch­ester with An­thony UnitedMar­tial, the Eng­land for­ward caused Mauri­cio Po­chet­tino’s de­fend­ers con­stant prob­lems in the first half with his run­ning inwide ar­eas. Pho­to­graph: Dave Sho­p­land/BPI/REX/Shut­ter­stock

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