Ole Gunnar Solskjaer always had a great eye for an opportunity. When Jose Mourinho was axed by Manchester United no-one mentioned the Norwegian as a possible successor. Yet after less than a month as caretaker boss, and six wins from six games, Solskjaer is in pole position to become manager.
Yesterday’s victory over Spurs was as good a job interview as anyone could wish for. Not only did Solskjaer raise his own stock, he lowered that of chief rival Mauricio Pochettino.
Solskjaer makes his predecessor’s insistence that he was getting the best from an average team hamstrung by the miserliness of the club owners seem a pitiful excuse. At Wembley, United looked as though they could have been title contenders but for their disastrous first half of the season.
Every United win hammers another nail into the coffin of Mourinho’s reputation. Nowhere is the difference made by a change of management more obvious than in the performances of the player who cost a fortune and the player who cost nothing.
That duo combined for yesterday’s winner. There seemed little danger when Paul Pogba gained possession inside the United half but the Frenchman instantly swept an exquisite through ball into the path of Marcus Rashford. The striker galloped clear before driving home a low shot from the right-hand corner of the box.
The precision of the finish looked even more impressive when Spurs spurned a string of second-half chances, both Harry Kane and Dele Alli blazing shots off the legs of David de Gea when clean through. United’s keeper did well to save but had either player displayed Rashford’s coolness he wouldn’t have had the opportunity.
No players suffered more under the Mourinho regime than Rashford and Pogba. The former’s finishing touch deserted him as the manager’s lack of faith sapped his confidence. Now he is rejuvenated by Solksjaer’s decision to make him United’s main striker.
The winner against Spurs means Rashford has scored in three successive league matches for the first time. That it took a player of his gifts so long to put together this run shows United’s disarray in recent seasons.
Pogba’s assist, with its beguiling combination of vision and technical excellence, was impressive enough but a moment in the 55th minute was arguably even more eloquent about the unique nature of his talent. After his shot was half charged down Pogba surged forward in pursuit, muscled Jan Vertonghen out of the way and stretched acrobatically to get in a shot which forced a good save from Hugo Lloris. The power and athleticism were something no midfielder in the world could match.
Lloris also had to keep out a fierce drive and a towering header from Pogba, whose performance makes Mourinho’s decision to bench him seem a textbook example of cutting off your nose to spite your face. All those criticisms of Pogba’s haircuts, social media presence and general refusal to agree with a crabby puritan vision of how a footballer should behave seem irrelevant now.
It took Solskjaer to get the best out of Pogba and Rashford, and instil the kind of self-belief United have lacked in the post-Ferguson era. The five previous wins over inferior opposition might have been achieved under Mourinho but would have lacked the panache and flourish elicited by the new manager.
The confidence gained from winning those matches in such convincing style proved vital in United’s first serious test under Solskjaer. At times they rode their luck but there was a unity of purpose which had been utterly absent in the dog days of 2018.
This defeat is a big setback for Spurs. Not long ago they seemed like title contenders. Today they are nine points behind Liverpool and only eight ahead of a United team back in the race for champions league slots. The Solskjaer revolution is making life more uncomfortable for everyone else in the Premier League.
Most caretaker managers just go in to keep the seat warm, aiming to restore a bit of confidence and stability without making any big changes. Solskjaer, on the other hand, has been ambitious from day one, entirely altering United’s approach and clearly feeling he’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime.
Five years ago his reputation took a major hit after a nightmarish eight months at Cardiff City which brought nine wins in 30 games and relegation from the Premier League. After being sacked he returned to managing Molde in Norway. He’s still manager of Molde. who expect him back in May. They may be rethinking that schedule this morning.
Other managerial plans may also have been upset by Solskjaer’s whirlwind month. The United job looked Pochettino’s for the taking in December. Not any more. Zinedine Zidane, Massimiliano Allegri and Laurent Blanc might also have thought about sending in their CVs to Old Trafford.
Now it seems the eyes of the big guns could be wiped by Norway’s foremost expert in unobtrusive ruthlessness. No better man to make the most of a half chance.