It has repeatedly been claimed that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is facing his first real test as United manager’s for the visit to Spurs on Sunday.
There’s no denying that his opening fixtures were kind to him, taking on 16th placed Cardiff, then 19th placed Huddersfield, 11th placed Bournemouth and 15th placed Newcastle.
However, it’s fair to say that his first real test was taking charge of his first game with a squad of players who were demoralised and struggling on the pitch. They had lost three, drawn three and won two of their previous eight games, averaging 1.5 goals per game.
There were players who looked totally switched off and he had to win them over and get them performing at the level they were capable of.
At Cardiff, with United scoring five goals for the first time in the league since Sir Alex Ferguson had retired, Solskjaer passed that test. Paul Pogba being voted player of the month by the fans in December was Solskjaer passing another test.
There’s the assumption that anyone could have come in and did what Solskjaer has, but David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho didn’t ever oversee five league goals in a game. Moyes and Van Gaal won five games on the trot on just one occasion each during their time at the club, while Mourinho managed it four times in over two years.
With the victory over Reading in the FA Cup, Solskjaer became just the second manager in United’s history to win his first five games, earning membership to an elite club that includes just him and Sir Matt Busby.
Interestingly, he is the first top-flight manager since the football league began in 1888 to win his first five games by at least two goals, which isn’t a bad record to hold and illustrates how well he has passed the tests he has faced up until this point.
If Solskjaer beats Spurs on Sunday, he will become the only United manager to have won their first six games.
But, of course, that’s easier said than done.
Mauricio Pochettino’s team will likely carry Tuesday night’s high from beating Chelsea into this weekend’s game, while United have had a week off, working hard on some warm weather training in Dubai.
Pogba was late to join the squad, having suffered an injury following Jonjo Shelvey’s appalling challenge on him in the win over Newcastle. Solskjaer has confirmed the midfielder is fit to play at Wembley, which will be welcomed news for the fans. He has been man of the match or there abouts in all four of the games he’s played for Solskjaer.
“That’s the Paul I know, the Paul I have known since he was in the reserves and in the youth team,” the manager said after Pogba’s top performance against Huddersfield.
“He’s always been a happy boy, he’s always had a big smile on his face, and when you play football for Manchester United you should be happy.
Paul loves playing for this club. He’s a Man United boy through and through.
“He’s a kid that knows what it means to play for Man United.”
Pogba’s performances dropped to a shocking level in the last few weeks of Mourinho’s time at the club and the fractured relationship was often used as an excuse for the midfielder failing to dominate many of the big games. There are no excuses for him now though and United will need him to show up against Spurs if they are to get a result.
Alexis Sanchez is another player who failed to shine under Mourinho who should be raring to go when facing the rivals of his former club. His every touch was booed when United beat Tottenham in the FA Cup semi-final last season and he went on to score that day. Under Solskjaer, he’s made two substitute appearances and managed to assist two goals. He will also be keen to leave the blame for his disappointing form on Mourinho’s doorstep and make the difference at the weekend.
However, a lot of the pressure will likely fall on Marcus Rashford’s shoulders, the young forward who Solskjaer has relied upon thus far. So often he does all the difficult work, beating his opponent for skill or pace, but isn’t always as cool as he needs to be when one on one with the goalkeeper. Luckily for him, he’s now being coached by one of the best finishers the club has ever had, who so often was just given a few minutes to score a goal and regularly delivered.
In the four league games he played for Solskjaer, he’s racked up three goals and an assist, which is an excellent return, and he’ll be looking to add to that at Wembley.
Spurs are clearly favourites to win the game but there’s so much about this United side that is now unknown. If Mourinho was still at the club his tactics on Sunday would be fairly predictable. He’d likely start with a back five, pack the midfield, and leave Romelu Lukaku to do what he could with the ball being booted up to him. With Solskjaer, it is different.
“You always adapt to any opposition,” he said in his pre-match press conference. “We’re playing against one of the best teams in the league so of course we’ve got to be aware of their strengths. But I’ve been brought up believing we need to attack teams. That’s our strength as well.”
There isn’t much wrong with United’s attack. While Spurs might be 10 points ahead in the table, they’ve only scored three more goals.
But only six teams have conceded more goals than United this season, illustrating why Mourinho had been so determined to emulate the spending of Liverpool and City on a world-class centre half.
Attack will therefore have to be the best form of defence for United which is a risky approach, but likely the only way Solskjaer knows how to play. And this is what the fans said they wanted from their manager. Hopefully, they will still feel the same way come the final whistle on Sunday evening.