Solskjær’s basic tactics may be what Manchester United need right now
Caretaker manager’s instructions to side to play more forward led to a 5-1 win over Cardiff
Manchester United caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer celebrates with Fred and Paul Pogba after their victory over Cardiff. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images
Saturday evening in Cardiff did not really feel like work for Ole Gunnar Solskjær. The man who sealed Manchester United’s treble in 1999 has been adored from afar since retiring in 2007 and leaving the club four years later, but his first game in his dream job was less a Premier League fixture, more an occasion for that adoration to be displayed. Which looked like good fun.
If most managerial appointments are a reaction to their predecessor, this is surely the ultimate example. United have brought in someone for the rest of the season who is truly happy to be there, who will revere the club and submit to its needs rather than use it as a platform from which to air personal grievances. That might make the place a little more dignified, but will this short-term boost translate into what United need?
Solskjær has not been brought in only to make people feel fuzzy and nice. They did not replace a bloke few liked with one everybody does only for sentimental reasons: they have the Champions League to qualify for, a business model to top up, a little face to save.
At the very least, United played more positive, fear-free football than they did before. “Under any manager or any circumstances that’s how Man United are expected to play,” said Luke Shaw after the 5-1 win over Cardiff. A bare minimum that might have been, but a theme of the assorted comments from United players showed this wasn’t just because José Mourinho had gone, but because they were following their new manager’s instructions.
“He said we need to play more forward, to be more dangerous in attack, to run more, to compete with everything and that’s exactly what we did today,” said Nemanja Matic. “The lads played with a lot of energy, enjoyment and excitement,” said Jesse Lingard. “He wants us to be positive on the ball,” said Marcus Rashford.
If those instructions sound basic, it’s because they are. But perhaps basic is what United need for the moment. Something else that was repeated amid the post-match grinning was Solskjær’s refrain about the quality of the players available to him.
“Football is easy if you’ve got good players,” he told BT Sport, if nothing else a pleasant antidote to his predecessor, who was rarely shy of making his relative disdain for this United squad clear.
Naturally, the most high-profile candidate for revitalisation is Paul Pogba. The French World Cup winner was involved in three of the goals, and afterwards made a point of praising Mourinho. “We won trophies with José and I want to thank him for that,” he said. “He made me improve, as a person as well. I want to thank him for that. I’m sure that is the same of all the players.”
Was he claiming the moral high ground, killing Mourinho with kindness, or have we got it all wrong and they were really just respectful colleagues? Who knows. But it did feel a little bit like those post-boxing match moments when the combatants praise each other’s skill, spirit and character having spent the weeks before the fight convincing everyone how much they hate each other.
If Solskjær can get Pogba playing to his potential, then a large part of the battle will be won. Will that be enough? United are eight points behind Chelsea in fourth place and Arsenal in fifth. On the eve of the season’s halfway stage that is a pretty big gap, but both of those sides have shown vulnerabilities.
Southampton were in the relegation zone when they beat Arsenal last weekend and Claude Puel’s job was said to be at risk before Leicester’s win over Chelsea.
United were only heading one way under Mourinho and while hiring Solskjær, given his previous record in England, was a gamble, it seems to have been one worth taking. Particularly if he can harness the positivity of Saturday and take it into their forthcoming fixtures, which look pretty friendly. The next three league games are against Huddersfield, Bournemouth and Newcastle, then there’s Reading in the FA Cup third round before they face the considerably harder test of Tottenham at Wembley on January 13th.
“There’s a very long way to go,” said Shaw. “We’re not too focused on the other teams’ scorelines at the moment. The main focus is us and the next four or five games are very winnable. Of course we want the top four, we want to be playing in the Champions League next season. Seeing the way we played today, I don’t see why we can’t.”