Manchester United have made it. Six wins from six games under interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær was clearly enough to lift the dark clouds from Old Trafford. Sunday’s 1-0 win against Tottenham at Wembley was the final evidence that the Norwegian coach is very serious about getting the role permanently at the end of the season as he won the ‘audition for the Old Trafford job’ against Mauricio Pochettino.
The result against Spurs saw United move level on points with Arsenal in fifth place as Solskjær surpassed Sir Matt Busby’s record for the best start as Red Devils manager, while also seeing his side keep back-to-back clean sheets in the Premier League for the first time this season.
The game with Tottenham was Solskjær’s first against a top side and a chance for United’s interim manager to show everyone that enthusiasm, a good atmosphere and friendly relationships with players wasn’t all he has brought to United. Solskjær had a chance to show he was able to outsmart the club’s first favorite to take over the Old Trafford job next summer. Was he successful? Yes, but only to some extent.
Solskjær showed his tactical adaptabilty
While the vast majority of United’s fanbase called Solskjær’s win against Pochettino a tactical masterclass and proof he is Mourinho’s legitimate heir, in my opinion he showed only his immense ability to adapt and get maximum from the opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. Jose Mourinho had (or still has) this quality too.
The key in Solskjær’s first-half approach against Tottenham was Jesse Lingard, who once again showed how smart his movements without the ball are and how much potential he has.
United’s almost striker-less 4-3-3 formation completely caught Spurs by surprise. Lingard dropped deep to link up with the likes of Pogba and Herrera, while Rashford and Martial were positioned extremely high and wide to exploit attacking transitions.
With Moussa Dembele leaving for China and Eric Dier’s absent due to injury, Pochettino had no choice but to use Harry Winks as a deep-lying midfielder. Lingard’s intelligent positioning without the ball successfully negated Winks’ influence on the pitch and disrupted Tottenham’s build-up.
This reminded me of Jose Mourinho using Ander Herrera to man-mark Eden Hazard. Solskjær did almost the same thing, but tactically speaking with a smarter and more intelligent approach.
While Winks was Solskjær’s target to stop, Pochettino’s was obviously Paul Pogba. Using Moussa Sissoko’s physicality he tried to stop United’s on fire Frenchman. And he did it successfully until Sissoko got injured. Moments later Pogba used Rashford’s immense ability to run into wide-open space, and the latter put United 1-0 up.
Pochettino’s change of a formation and Solskjær’s lack of response
The second half was all about Tottenham and this is why I have some doubts over Solskjær’s ability to lead United in the long-term. Pochettino is a great tactical master, as he showed on Sunday at Wembley. The Argentinian recognized that his midfield diamond was not helping to protect the flanks and he changed the system to a 4-2-3-1.
Winks and Eriksen were now paired as the deep midfielders, while Lamela and Son were used as natural wingers. Dele Alli took up the no. 10 position while Harry Kane was playing up front. While Spurs’ front four caused a lot of danger to United’s defense, Pochettino positioned his full-backs a little deeper and suddenly United did not have the space to counter into which they had enjoyed in the first half.
Tottenham then dominated United until the end of the game and only the miraculous David De Gea and his 11 saves prevented them from conceding.
Solskjær’s plan worked perfectly in the first half, but United got lucky in the second and a lack of response to Spurs’ change of formation raises some questions. Of course, United fans are happy with another win, a historical one, but we cannot ignore the fact that Mauricio Pochettino has over-performed with Tottenham for over four years while Solskjaer has sat on United’s bench for only six games.
Brighton is another tough test for Solskjær
Another tough test awaits the Red Devils on Saturday when Old Trafford will host Brighton and Hove Albion, who were narrowly beaten at home by Liverpool last weekend. The Seagulls inflicted United’s first defeat of the season back in August and began Jose Mourinho’s policy of dropping anyone who had a bad game. Solskjær will have a chance to rest some key players and see what state the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez and Fred are in.
Obviously, Brighton will be a different type of opponent for United but a big test for their attacking potential, as the visitors will opt to drop deep and make them work hard to find the right attacking combinations for the win.
According to Opta, only two managers have won six Premier League games in a row at the start of their reign – Carlo Ancelotti at Chelsea and Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. Three points against Brighton would put Solskjær level with them, and if he was to also beat Burnley at the end of the month, he would hold the record outright.
Saturday’s game will also be one of the last times for Solskjær to tinker with his team as fiery February is knocking on the doors. United will play against Arsenal, PSG, and Liverpool in the space of a few weeks.
While the vast majority of United’s fanbase thought Tottenham was the game where United would be tested, in my opinion the month of February will prove if Ole Gunnar Solskjær is a real candidate for the job at Old Trafford.