For Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the most satisfying aspect of Manchester United’s victory over Tottenham was passing his first ‘big assignment’.
United’s interim boss went to Wembley on the back of a smooth initiation, becoming the first man in his position to win his first five games.
However, the excitement around Solskjaer’s instant impact was tempered by the tasks he’d overcome. While there are no easy games, a run of Cardiff, Huddersfield, Bournemouth, Newcastle and Reading in the cup is pretty much as gentle as it gets.
Travelling to Spurs was the 45-year-old’s first taste of facing a top-six rival. Now, after a hard-fought victory, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on the Norwegian’s dream start to life in his dream job.
Mood, attitude and projecting positivity
By the end of Jose Mourinho’s tenure, his press conferences had become exhausting. Sub-editors at newspapers waited on the edge of their seats for the next juicy headline.
The Portuguese coach, increasingly beleaguered, disillusioned and paranoid, often used his time with the media to hint at a disconnect between himself and the club’s hierarchy over transfer targets. He was often found calling into question the mentality and ability of his players.
Granted, when a team isn’t performing, the manager is perfectly within his right to criticise. However, the feeling was that Mourinho often went too far, to the extent where he incited resentment among his playing personnel.
But Solskjaer has hit United’s squad like a breath of fresh air. From the outset, he has repeatedly referred to the club’s traditions, portraying himself as a man with United pumping through his veins. For all of his success in the game, Mourinho never quite understood the importance of that. In that sense, Solskjaer is his antithesis.
The man who scored the most famous goal in United history has used press conferences to keep the good times rolling. Prior to the Spurs game, he could be found bigging up Marcus Rashford, saying the 21-year-old could certainly reach the level of Harry Kane.
Rashford proved to be the matchwinner on Sunday, demonstrating his bolstered self-belief in racing away from Jan Vertonghen and flashing the ball across Hugo Lloris for the all-important goal. The run and dead-eyed finish were reminiscent of Solskjaer in his pomp.
Solskjaer clearly places great stock in publicly backing his players, a tactic mastered by the man from whom he draws the most inspiration; Sir Alex Ferguson.
Indeed, the smile on Fergie’s face as the full-time whistle went at Wembley couldn’t have been in starker contrast to the broken man who watched on at Anfield in Mourinho’s final game as Liverpool ran out 3-1 winners.
Of course, portrayals of Solskjaer as just ‘another one of the lads’ are wide of the mark. He remains the boss and is not afraid to show it. As per The Telegraph, he unleashed his own interpretation of the ‘hairdryer’ at half-time in the FA Cup win over Reading.
United were leading and fairly comfortable but Solskjaer was certainly not afraid to offer a withering assessment of what we had just witnessed.
He has struck that balance between refreshing presence and stern motivator and United are benefitting immensely.
Tactics and game-management
As for on-field matters, Solskjaer has benefitted from enlisting the help of Mike Phelan, a man who can offer more than a decade’s worth of coaching the United first team.
Together, they have restored a sense of freedom and fluidity. Rashford is scoring regularly, Paul Pogba has a smile on his face and Ander Herrera is enjoying his best run in the team since the Louis van Gaal era.
But Solskjaer has done much more than simply telling players to ‘go out and enjoy themselves.’ He has helped Rashford with his finishing, making a mockery of Mourinho’s suggestion that it was down to ‘natural ability’.
He has also recognised Pogba as the player around whom he can build a team. Settling on Herrera and Nemanja Matic as his preferred duo in midfield has pushed Pogba higher up the pitch. Under Solskjaer, the Frenchman has contributed four goals and four assists in five games. After providing the assist for Rashford against Spurs, the club’s record signing spoke of being ‘happier’ after a spell in the ‘shadows,’ remarks which don’t require a great deal of scrutiny.
The stats certainly reflect the positive wind of change blowing through the Theatre of Dreams. Under Mourinho this season, United averaged 496 passes per game. That has increased to 601 under his successor with the Red Devils also increasing the average duration, width and number of passes per spell in possession.
Solskjaer has also recognised the benefit of urging his most-advanced players to press the opposition, who are winning possession in the attacking third four times per 90 now, up from 2.76 under Mourinho.
Essentially, United are hungrier and faster as an attacking unit. Against Spurs, though, Solskjaer showed how he can adapt his gameplan for the bigger games, instructing Matic to sit right in front of Victor Lindelof and Phil Jones, effectively operating as a third centre-half.
With Herrera’s energy, the midfield was hugely congested, nullifying Moussa Sissoko’s powerful running. Spurs created chances and produced a number of top saves from David de Gea but that will almost always happen when a side sits deep to protect a lead. United still defended well and came away with a clean sheet.
Emboldened by his first ‘big win’ Solskjaer can afford to look ahead with great optimism. The visit of Brighton to Old Trafford on Saturday should yield another three points before the next daunting assignment on the road: Arsenal in the FA Cup.
Solskjaer has great memories of playing them. With the way his United are shaping up, he may be adding another one to the scrapbook come Friday week.
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