Friday 11 January 2019

Ole's first litmus test could tip the balance in battle of the bosses

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be aware of the importance of Sunday’s game against Tottenham. He will know a win will take Manchester United right back in the race for a much-needed top four finish. He will also know that a triumph over opposite number Mauricio Pochettino will increase his chances of retaining his dream job in the Old Trafford hot seat come August.

 Solskjaer - an interim anti-Jose Mourinho - has emulated the great Sir Matt Busby by winning his first five games, but his beaming charm offensive has been aided by a relatively friendly introductory fixture list that could have been hand-picked by the 45-year-old Norwegian.
The talk that Solskjaer might land the job full-time has got louder and louder - but surely no truly convincing evidence has yet been presented to back up that theory?

Now, however, it gets serious.
When Solskjaer takes United to face Spurs on Sunday, we will discover more about his credentials, his credibility as a potential full-time successor and whether the smiles can be backed up with a big result rather than some early, if admirable, flat-track bullying.
The run of games faced so far has comprised Huddersfield, Bournemouth and Reading at home, and Cardiff and Newcastle away.
The statistics are impressive: five from five, 16 goals and only three against and an average of 61.63% possession over those matches. He could not have done any more. But the caveat has come  in the kindness of those fixtures - with all due respect, any Manchester United manager and side should be winning those.
Throw in the constant claims that the clouds rolled away once Mourinho paid his extras and drove away from the Lowry Hotel after the limp loss to Liverpool and everything at Old Trafford is coming up rosy.
Solskjaer has got the results required, unified a squad previously at odds with its manager, reintegrated the huge talent of Paul Pogba and formed a sound coaching team with Michael Carrick, the returning wise old head Mike Phelan and Kieran McKenna.
He has a bottomless pit of goodwill among everyone connected with Manchester United after 11 seasons at the club, which brought 126 goals in 366 appearances, including the dramatic winner in the 1999 Champions League final against Bayern Munich in Barcelona.
And, crucially, he is naturally more comfortable in his surroundings at the 'Theatre of Dreams' than any of the three successors to Sir Alex Ferguson: the out-of-his depth David Moyes, the death by a thousand passes Louis van Gaal and the confrontational, divisive Mourinho.
So far. So good.
The true test comes now.

If Solskjaer can prove this is a serious rejuvenation by fashioning a result at Spurs - a team still right in contention for the Premier League title, and handsome winners at Old Trafford in August - then all the positivity might actually acquire substance.
And Solskjaer has the opportunity to strike a real blow for his profile if he can outmanoeuvre Mauricio Pochettino, the favourite to be the next manager at Old Trafford, on Sunday. What would that do for his long term prospects at the club? If the caretaker beats the contender, then what?..
 This is the first real test for Ole as boss and it will be fascinating to see how it pans out. Many fans and outsiders have reserved judgment so far as we ‘haven’t played anyone good yet’ but the outcome of this one could help make their minds up.

The odds, however, must still be on United going for an experienced manager of proven quality rather than a personality, no matter how engaging or ingrained in the foundations of Old Trafford he might be.

And as and when the run of victories comes to an end, there will be other tests.
What happens when he delivers bad news? The history of this season suggests Manchester United's players are not quite as smiley when the going is rough or when they are receiving messages that are more hardline, which led to so much discontent under Mourinho.
United's squad, and star players such as Pogba and Alexis Sanchez, were able to use Mourinho as their shield. How will they, and others, react when Solskjaer tells them something they do not like?
And what about United's hierarchy who, with the best will in the world, were unlikely to have had Solskjaer in mind as the man to drive them into a golden future post-Mourinho?

 Remember the cautionary tale of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich and Roberto di Matteo.
The Italian succeeded Andre Villas - Boas with Chelsea on their knees in March 2012 and in two months had won the FA Cup and the trophy the Russian wanted most of all - the Champons League.
It was the greatest interim manager audition in history, yet Abramovich never seemed convinced but was in a corner.
He eventually gave Di Matteo, a manager of modest previous attainments, a two-year deal. He was sacked in November and has since reverted to modest mode.
And yet Solskjaer, if he can prove these early results are not simply a soft landing, has the capacity to give executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward a similar dilemma.
The top four and the Champions League places are only six points away and key dates are also coming at Arsenal in the FA Cup fourth round and against Paris St-Germain in the last 16 of the Champions League.
If Solskjaer can steer United through those two assignments, the bandwagon will be rolling at high speed.
One thing is certain - we will know a lot more about how good Solskjaer and this miraculously rejuvenated Red Devils team are on Sunday night.
And a lot more about whether Solskjaer can really be taken seriously as a future Manchester United manager.

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