One Manchester United fan commented after Sunday’s game at Wembley that this was the day Ole Gunnar Solskjaer got the job.
He is still caretaker, and will be until the end of the season. Everything coming out of Old Trafford insists that no announcement will be made until then. And that’s sensible because Solskjaer does not yet deserve the job full-time. Despite that, the 1-0 win against Tottenham Hotspur may indeed be looked back on as the day he convinced his superiors, as well as supporters.
Solskjaer showed tactical nous
While Man United were reliant upon the immense quality of David de Gea in the second half, no one can deny the variety of qualities that Solskjaer’s side showed. His tactics in the first half were spot on, and different. The six consecutive wins that Solskjaer has masterminded have not purely been a product of confidence and happiness. Those two things have been by-products of a new identity for United that is so heavily based on a Ferguson-created culture.
From the off, United had a distinguishable identity. They played quickly and proactively, pressing high in small numbers while marking specific players, too. Jesse Lingard played centrally more often than Rashford or Martial purely to mark Harry Winks out of the game and prevent Tottenham’s centre-backs from playing out. The young duo of Rashford and Martial, who often weren’t played together under Mourinho, rarely tracked back. But the full-backs of Shaw and Young stayed deeper than they had done in games against lesser sides. These were the small tactical tweaks of a manager who is showing that his qualities stretch further than simply ‘getting it’.
The most important decision of Solskjaer’s was to urge his team to play balls over the top of Tottenham’s defence. Mauricio Pochettino’s side are insatiable in their pressing and when United failed to move the ball on quick enough, they inevitably conceded possession. Instead, Pogba, Matic and Herrera were all constantly searching for the clipped ball over the top where the movement of Rashford, Lingard and Martial was excellently incessant. United escaped the Spurs press, something that even the league’s leading sides have sometimes failed to do.
For the first time in five years, United’s team adds up to the sum of its part. They are excellent and frightening in attack, but vulnerable in defence. That vulnerability prevented Mourinho from truly unleashing these players, but Solskjaer does not care.
Small tweaks defining Solskjaer success
Everything about his success thus far has been about little tweaks rather than revolutionary changes. Solskjaer has a desire to communicate individually with his players on certain issues. Rashford has worked on composure, and showed the benefits with his 44th-minute goal, while Pogba revealed after the 1-0 win that “the manager told me to get in the box and get goals. My best example is Frank Lampard, he’s the one who makes those runs.”
The mood at this club hasn’t been better since a May day in 2013 when Ferguson lifted his 13th and final title. So much of Solskjaer’s impact has stemmed from his experience under Ferguson. United’s players all donned club suits at Wembley. Ferguson would have it no other way. That’s his style and ideal, an inescapable one. He prefers Sky’s programmes to Match of the Day because the pundits wear ties. Now that culture is continued with Solskjaer.
This change in fortunes may not be permanent. But in a very short space of time, helped by a kind fixture list, Solskjaer has brought confidence, energy and unity to United. He has used his experience under Ferguson and of his management career so far. It’s all been about small tweaks making a big difference. And with that, players, fans, coaches and the board are all on the same path, one towards success rather than abject failure and underperformance.