New boss brings hap­pi­ness back to Old Traf­ford

The New Zealand Herald - - Sport - Paul Hay­ward

While the serv­ing Cardiff City man­ager thinks “to hell with the rest of the world,” one of his pre­de­ces­sors, Ole Gun­nar Sol­sk­jaer, is build­ing an em­pire.

To think Manch­ester United’s win over Spurs edged Mauri­cio Po­chet­tino out of the reck­on­ing at Old Traf­ford in any way is ab­surd, but Sol­sk­jaer, a very dif­fer­ent an­i­mal to Neil Warnock, will feel his own can­di­dacy has been strength­ened. Sol­sk­jaer’s own in­put was a shrewd tac­ti­cal set-up and that pre­cious qual­ity known as en­joy­ment. Be­yond that, he needed a stu­pen­dous goal­keep­ing per­for­mance from David de Gea, a ma­ture dis­play from Paul Pogba and spark­ing in­ter­play from his front three, An­thony Mar­tial, Jesse Lin­gard and Mar­cus Rash­ford, who are start­ing to show real United pedi­gree.

When it was over, the care­taker was spot­ted deep in con­ver­sa­tion with an­other for­mer United idol who knew a thing or two about for­ward play and knit­ting moves to­gether. None other than Lord Ed­ward of Sher­ing­ham stopped to share the mo­ment with his old ac­com­plice. Be­fore Sol­sk­jaer and Teddy Sher­ing­ham spoke, the whole United trav­el­ling party swayed over to the away end to re­joice. This is Wem­b­ley, sure, so a cel­e­bra­tion fit for a Cup fi­nal was not out of place.

De Gea led the way, throw­ing his arms up and bel­low­ing in front of the United end. His arms were still try­ing to match the work-rate of his legs, which blocked Tot­ten­ham’s shots over and over in a run of 11 saves. De Gea kept United afloat many times in the lean years post 2013 (well, lean by United’s stan­dards). Here in Tot­ten­ham’s lux­ury digs, he made the dif­fer­ence in a more pos­i­tive fash­ion. He ex­em­pli­fied the change in mood since Sol­sk­jaer was loaned to United by Molde, who must be won­der­ing whether they will ever get him back.

But hold those horses. United say they have a plan that will not change from game to game. The Jose Mour­inho suc­ces­sion is not a weekly au­di­tion, they say. Sol­sk­jaer is an in­terim man­ager. They are right not to treat a long-term ap­point­ment they ab­so­lutely have to get right as some­thing that can be swung de­ci­sively by six games, even if they were all wins. Po­chet­tino is bound to strike United still as the best qual­i­fied can­di­date to re­build the squad, in­te­grate home­grown youth (a lost art at United) and marry grace with power. Gareth South­gate would do a de­cent job of that as well.

At least one Spurs fan joked that United might leave Po­chet­tino alone now. But Tot­ten­ham’s man­ager was not di­rectly re­spon­si­ble for his team’s waste­ful fin­ish­ing. De Gea was mag­nif­i­cent, but Dele Alli should have beaten him at least twice. At the same time Sol­sk­jaer and his as­sis­tant, Mike Phe­lan, can take credit for stiff­en­ing up United’s back-four, who were a mess this sea­son un­der Mour­inho. United’s de­fend­ing has pro­gressed from floaty to flinty. Phil Jones took on on Harry Kane with rel­ish. In front of De Gea, United’s back line blocked and bat­tled while up ahead Pogba did what he should have been do­ing all along: sup­port­ing United’s front-three with in­ci­sive pass­ing.

“He’s brought some hap­pi­ness,” De Gea said of Sol­sk­jaer. “This is the real Man Utd.” The hu­man fac­tor can never be un­der­stated. Im­printed in this vic­tory were United’s five pre­vi­ous wins, four league, one cup, which trans­formed how the team sees it­self. Sol­sk­jaer, the first United man­ager to win his first six games, saw a lot of re­pressed tal­ent in this squad and has found sim­ple ways to set it free, this time in a 4-3-3 for­ma­tion with Pogba left and Jesse Lin­gard in the cen­tre­for­ward role.

On paper, an arch critic would have said United had five true United play­ers: their front three, Pogba, and the goal­keeper. Yet here you felt oth­ers leav­ing rel­a­tive medi­ocrity be­hind. An­der Her­rera, a con­ser­va­tive, short passer un­der Mour­inho, was more am­bi­tious with the ball. Vic­tor Lin­de­lof looked more at home. Jones was ac­ci­dent-free; and the full­backs Ash­ley Young and Luke Shaw were again more as­sertive without ac­tu­ally raid­ing Tot­ten­ham’s flanks the way Sol­sk­jaer would ide­ally like.

The beauty of Pogba’s pass to Rash­ford and the cool pre­ci­sion of the scorer’s fin­ish just be­fore half­time was United’s showreel mo­ment. This trio of young raiders should in­flict a lot of dam­age be­tween now and May. United are now only six points be­hind Chelsea in fourth po­si­tion and will fancy their chances in this kind of form of rum­bling back into the Cham­pi­ons League spots.

The joy of six is upon them, and Sol­sk­jaer is leav­ing his Cardiff mem­o­ries be­hind. But he has a lot more still to do to be con­sid­ered the ideal full-time United man­ager.

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