Even after winning his first five games as Manchester United manager, a feat only Sir Matt Busby had achieved before him, there weren’t many predicting that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would go on to make it six victories on the trot when his team took on Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday.
Spurs were well ahead in the table before the game, with the likes of Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Son Heung-min and Christian Eriksen all gunning to bring Solskjaer’s party to an end.
Fans and pundits had repeatedly claimed that Solskjaer’s impressive start was more to do with the poor quality of the opposition he’d faced, rather than anything special he was doing, and that he would likely come unstuck when facing a supposedly superior team and manager.
Pochettino, after all, is the favourite to be named the long-term United manager in the summer, so there would have been no shame in Solskjaer being outthought by the Argentine. Many United fans just hoped to see their team put in the attacking display they were used to when Ole was a player, under the leadership of Sir Alex Ferguson, and if they weren’t good enough to match Spurs in that regard, then so be it.
However, only one team found the back of the net at Wembley, and that was United, thanks to brilliant work from academy graduates Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba, and some outstanding saves from David de Gea at the other end.
Rival fans bemoaned the fact United were only able to win the game because they had De Gea in goal, which is largely true. While he wasn’t stretched in the same way as he was during his phenomenal display against Arsenal at the Emirates the season before, he was required to make several top quality stops. Spurs’ forwards helped make him look good though, directing their attempts far too close to a player of De Gea’s ability to beat him.
It’s always strange when people claim that having a goalkeeper who makes great saves is lucky, when you rarely hear the same accusation levelled at teams with players who score a lot of goals.
It may be good luck that United still have him at the club, following whatever mistakes lead to him staying put in the summer of 2015 when a deal with Real Madrid had been agreed. But United aren’t lucky winners for the fact they have a goalkeeper who is capable of preventing the opposition from scoring and Spurs don’t, any more than it being good fortune to have Rashford leading the line opposed to Kane.
Yet this result should put to bed the notion that Solskjaer is just riding the wave of positivity that came once the players were offered the freedom they craved after Jose Mourinho left the club.
Solskjaer did have easier fixtures in his opening games, but it’s no coincidence they scored five league goals in a game for the first time since Ferguson retired with the Norwegian’s tactics in place. Their goal difference has rocketed from zero to 12 in the month he’s been at the club, when in the 17 games up until Mourinho’s sacking the highest it had been was two.
United were 18 points behind City, now they’re nine. They were 13 behind Spurs, now seven. 11 behind Chelsea, now six.
Most impressively, and they have Unai Emery and his players to thank for this, the eight point advantage Arsenal had has been reduced to nothing.
After the game, several players discussed in detail how much time they had spent preparing to score the goal they did at Wembley, paying attention to the flaws in Spurs’ defence.
“We did a lot of work in training on switching the play,” Rashford said. “It’s been a tough week in training but that was one of the things we’ve been working on. For it to come out in a game is good for us. We knew that against a team, as Tottenham defend, that the chances were going to come in between the full-backs and the centre-halves.”
Pogba, whose excellent pass provided the assist for Rashford’s goal, echoed these sentiments.
“It’s a great ball but we’ve been training on this,” he said. “We knew it was a weakness of Tottenham’s when they were attacking on one side. We needed to get high and attack the opposite side.”
Surprisingly, Solskjaer picked Rashford for the wide position, while playing Lingard centrally, which is not an approach we have often seen before. The manager explained the thinking behind this and was obviously delighted that his plan paid off.
“The goal is why I put Anthony and Rashford wide of Jesse because Jesse is more of a link player and he can drop in whereas Rash and Anthony are more direct towards goal and that is why we put that plan in place and it worked,” he said.
“We worked on it for a week and we have seen Spurs and we thought that was going to be a good plan. I am happy. I said to the boys to be proud because they followed the plan to perfection in the first half. We thought they were going to come as they did and it worked a treat.”
Many will look at Solskjaer’s failed stint at Cardiff, where any manager would have had a hard time succeeding, and believe that he isn’t up to the United job, but this is fairly insulting. In Norway, he lead Molde to back to back titles, the first two league wins in the club’s entire history, to finish ahead of Rosenborg, who have won the title a record-breaking 26 times.
The Premier League offers much tougher challenges than the Norwegian league, of course, but you don’t achieve what he did with Molde just by relying on the feel good factor and simply instructing the players to go out and enjoy themselves.
Solskjaer got it right at Wembley. It could have been a different result in the second half as United tired, if not for De Gea, but it hardly came as a surprise to the manager that he has the best goalkeeper in the world playing for him who he may well need to rely upon him to secure the three points. Pochettino claimed that second half was the best he had ever seen his Tottenham play, which speaks volumes of how well United did to keep a clean sheet.
With the biggest test of his United managerial career to date out of the way, Solskjaer now has to prepare his team for the games against Arsenal, PSG and Liverpool on the horizon. He will certainly have his feet on the floor but will be quietly confident about picking up some more good results.
Solskjaer is the only United manager to have won his first six games in charge but it is still far too soon to claim he should get the job permanently. However, if he keeps United playing as well as they are and claiming wins in the big games, it will be hard to argue against appointing him. It’s a big month ahead, for both United and Solskjaer, and time will tell whether he’s up to it.