New boss brings happiness back to Old Trafford
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.