How can Ole Gunnar Solskjaer become more than just a post-Mourinho manager?
What an important night this is for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Strangely, despite Manchester United’s poor form and their rhythm-less performances this season, he apparently remains relatively secure at Old Trafford. United chairman Ed Woodward has made such a show of buying into what Solskjaer represents that, clearly, to row back on that now would be to risk a very public humiliation.
The trouble is, Solskjaer’s appeal to Woodward seems to depend on commodities of only illusory worth. Increasingly, talk of philosophy, culture and DNA is the preserve of executives who want to sound like they know what they’re not talking about. See, for instance, Josh Kroenke’s accompanying message to Freddie Ljungberg’s temporary appointment. Not very convincing, is it?
Like Solskjaer, in fact, who is a coach of only the vaguest substance. While he may have virtues, it's very difficult to name though or, more troublingly, to determine what kind of manager he actually is. What does he believe in tactically, for instance? What are the imperatives of his football?
What are his attributes?
That’s a situation not helped by the fact that whenever United are on television, he rarely appears on screen without Mike Phelan or Michael Carrick next to him, whispering wisdom in his ear. It’s not really fair, but the perception is of coaching-by-committee, itself a symptom of not having quite enough expertise in the building. Actually, that's a really a symptom of the wider problem. Every head coach in the Premier League employs the council of their assistants, but with Solksjaer it seems that much more instructive and to play on the suspicion that he's employed for his optics alone.
So facing Jose Mourinho this evening has an added dynamic. Solskjaer and Mourinho exist in obvious contrast. One is more method than man, a personality built almost entirely around the primacy of the score. The other, of course, is more of a woolly construct. Solkskjaer is the Premier League’s soft toy. Comforting and cuddly, stuffed with fluffy rhetoric.
And that’s an identity which he really needs to destroy.
He’s approaching a year in charge of United and, tellingly, he’s yet to develop any sort of credibility. That’s his great weakness. Still, even now, nothing that has happened over the past 12 months has portrayed him as anything other than a post-Mourinho balm. He’s won a few games and given life to the occasional academy prospect, but he still possesses little clear definition.
What are his strengths? What does he do well? When the whistle sounds and the players are out on the pitch, what is the advantage of Manchester United having him in their dugout as opposed to the many, many alternatives who come with clearer associations?
That’s not intended to be facetious. It’s a genuine concern. It’s bizarre that having coached so many games and spent a solid year under the media’s lens, that these questions still don’t really have answers. United’s players seem to like him personally and a few have reacted positively to the change in atmosphere since his appointment, but it’s still very difficult to describe this mini-epoch in anything other than generalised terms.
So Mourinho arrives and he’ll bring his improving Tottenham with him. They’re the better side and they should be considered favourites, meaning that a United win would be an excellent and unexpected result. But for Solskjaer it would have worth beyond just the three points. To win this game, he’ll have to do something. He'll have to win battles within a war. Contain the resurgent Dele Alli, perhaps, or subdue the Son/Moura wing combination which Mourinho has been riding during this recovery. Ultimately, Something more than just relying on the speed of his counter-attack and hoping his defence holds. A pro-active move which, in turn, will help describe what he is.
Beating Mourinho always comes with that kind of epilogue. He has that habit of representing his teams by proxy, meaning that victories over them collectively become defeats suffered by him personally. And Solkskjaer’s reputation would greatly benefit from coming out on the right side of these duels. Not just because United need points and an improved Premier League position, but because it’s through that analysis that he might become more than just ethereal personality.
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