Manchester United has been perfect since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over for Jose Mourinho, but the degree of difficulty increases Sunday against Tottenham and a manager who could well succeed the Red Devils' caretaker this summer.
Life has been good for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer since he returned to Manchester United. He has barely had a smile off his face, clearly relishing the opportunity to manage a club for which he has a deep affinity, and the injection of positivity and the change in mood have had a remarkable effect.
There have even been suggestions he might be having an impact beyond just cheering everybody up. Marcus Rashford’s cool finish against Newcastle came after Solskjaer had pointed out he had a habit of trying to take chances too early, while it was a double substitution in the second half of that game that shifted the momentum United’s way.
But after five straight wins, Sunday’s game against Tottenham presents the first major test. It’s one thing to beat four sides from the lower half of the Premier League, of whom only Cardiff City could be said to have been in anything approaching decent form, and a Championship side in the FA Cup. It's quite another to take on a Tottenham side that, despite an anxious start, comprehensively beat United at Old Trafford in August when it looked quicker, sharper and brighter than the home side.
For the first time in his United reign, Solskjaer will not simply be able to point his players in the direction of the pitch and tell them to go out and play, safe in the knowledge that his players are better than their opponents and that, all else being equal, they will win. Here he will have to devise a plan to deal with Harry Kane; work out how much defensive responsibility to give to Paul Pogba, who has been a revelation for him so far; decide how high to deploy his two wide men–probably Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard–and to what extent their roles should be tracking the opposing fullbacks.
He will meet a manager with exceptional players at his disposal who is as tactically flexible as anybody in the Premier League. Solskjaer will have to think on his feet, to react to whatever changes Mauricio Pochettino makes. And, of course, adding an extra edge is the fact that there’s a strong possibility that Solskjaer will step aside in the summer, making way for Pochettino to succeed him.
Man United has made little secret of the fact that the Argentine is the first choice as a permanent replacement for Jose Mourinho. He seems to fulfill every requirement. He is young, hungry and ambitious. He has proved tactically astute, has a track record in developing young talent and is popular with the media. He has many of the attributes that Mourinho conspicuously did not. He would seem just the man to heal wounds, restore unity and guide United forward.
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Tottenham fans will not what to hear it, but Pochettino has clearly been giving his future some thought. He spoke earlier in the week of the allure of spending 20 years at a club as Arsene Wenger did, but also of the dangers of fading out amid acrimony. He is clearly frustrated by the way the move to the new stadium, just as a similar move for Wenger, has restricted spending and by extension made a tough job even tougher.
Sunday provides a practical example of the constraints under which he must operate. With Mousa Dembele likely on his way to China, Eric Dier still recovering after an appendectomy and Victor Wanyama out with a knee injury, there is a lack of midfield options, meaning Moussa Sissoko and Harry Winks must continue to shoulder the burden. They have both excelled as Tottenham hit its form over the past couple of months, but they seemed weary in the League Cup semifinal first leg win over Chelsea on Tuesday–as they had in the defeat to Wolves on Boxing Day. The snap and zip of the 3-1 league win over Chelsea in November was missing. There’s not a huge amount Pochettino can do to resolve the issue and with Son Heung-min, another key figure in the surge since November, away at the Asian Cup, the squad is beginning to look a little bare.
And there, perhaps, is an opportunity for United. Perhaps Solskjaer’s rejuvenated midfield, with Pogba offering glimpses of his swaggering best, can overwhelm Spurs and inspire a victory that would finish off Tottenham’s title aspirations once and for all while boosting his own side’s hopes of Champions League qualification–and, perhaps, his own chances of landing the United job for the long haul.