Solskjaer needs to become more than just the anti-Mourinho
United manager also has to step out of Alex Ferguson's shadow
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer must find his own way and become more than merely a conduit through which the Fergusonian vibe can flow. Photograph: Andrew Yates/Reuters
So Manchester United need a 2-1 win at Camp Nou. Can anybody think of a time when they have done that? Yes, you at the back there – baby-faced man in the grey V-neck?
Really, this cannot go on. Sooner or later Ole Gunnar Solskjær is going to have to do something as manager that does not immediately draw comparison with Alex Ferguson. Perhaps he will inspire a victory away to Barcelona – something United have never achieved. Perhaps there will even be two late goals, one prodded home at the back post in injury time after a corner has been flicked on. But if he does, it will feel less like football management than witchcraft. Give it Melisandre till the end of the season.
The first leg of the quarter-final seemed a match in which a number of doubts coalesced. There is no disgrace in losing 1-0 to Barcelona and, while United will have to do something they have never done before if they are to progress, at this stage of the last round they had to do something no side had ever done before.
There was much in Wednesday’s performance, at least after an oddly diffident opening 20 minutes, from which Solkskjær could draw encouragement. United pressed ferociously and for long spells made Barça look sloppy in possession. Scott McTominay is beginning to blossom as a midfielder in his own right, rather than just being a bloke who is emphatically not Paul Pogba, as he often seemed to be under José Mourinho. If Diogo Dalot and Marcus Rashford had been a little more clinical, United might even have won.
But the truth is Barcelona were relatively comfortable after half-time. They survived their wobble, realised United are dangerous only on the counterattack as Louis van Gaal noted when, with a robustness that obfuscated his point, he accused Solskjær of being a manager “who parks the bus”, sat deep and denied United’s rapid wide men space to run into. Solskjær had no solution.
That is only in part a criticism of him. United do not have a picklock with the tight technical skills to undo a massed defence – something that draws questions, again, about Pogba, a player who seems in danger of falling into the Steven Gerrard trap of being neither one thing nor the other. In a world in which midfielders tend to fall into two bands, he has elements of both but not enough of either. He might have thrived as a box-to-box player in the 80s but these days, at the very highest level, he seems too ebullient to function as a holder, but not quite deft enough to be a number 10.
In isolation, perhaps, the defeat would not matter too much for Solskjær. It’s Barcelona, it’s the quarter-finals of the Champions League. It happens. But it was his fourth defeat in five games in the middle of which, Ed Woodward’s touch as sure as ever, he was given a three-year contract.
In 1973 the Yale professor Harold Bloom proposed his theory of the Anxiety of Influence, positing an Oedipal relationship between writers and their literary forebears. John Milton, for instance, he argued could truly excel as a poet only after he had symbolically murdered his great idol Edmund Spenser. William Blake, likewise, had to cast off Milton. A similar dynamic can be seen in football, perhaps most strikingly in the case of Mauricio Pochettino.
That the Spurs manager is of the school of Marcelo Bielsa is obvious but so too his discomfort in talking about the influence of Bielsa. Pochettino has moved beyond the manager who came into his bedroom one night when he was 14 and made him a footballer on the basis of his legs. He is grateful to Bielsa for the start he gave him and the principles he instilled but he also sees his flaws and does things differently. A sense of loyalty seems to inhibit him from discussing that divergence too openly.
Solskjær, at some point, will have to go through a similar process, made all the harder by the fact the symbolic father he has to knife tends to sit a few rows behind him at games, while the stand he faces from the bench is named after him.
Invoking “the Boss” at every turn was an effective tool to signal his difference from the previous regime and to highlight a return to the United Way but just as McTominay had to be more than just not-Pogba, so Solskjær has to be more than just not-Mourinho. And as, say, Dynamo Kyiv have found, a club cannot go through life living forever in the shadow of a previous manager.
In that, Solskjær’s opposite number at Barça, Ernesto Valverde, perhaps offers a valuable lesson. He played at Barcelona under Johan Cruyff and was appointed in part because he is of the school. And yet he was prepared to risk the wrath of the devout and take the most un-Cruyffian step of protecting a lead by packing men behind the ball.
Solskjær, similarly, must find his own way and become more than merely a conduit through which the Fergusonian vibe can flow – although perhaps not until after he has followed his mentor in pulling off a stunning 2-1 win at Camp Nou.