He could smile, be gracious, look pleased to be there and deliver the letter U in a pleasing Scandi-Manc. He could make some of the best footballers in the world seem happy to be paid million of pounds a year to play for one of the biggest clubs in the world – a feat of psychological alchemy quite beyond his predecessor. But could Ole Gunnar Solskjær do it on a chilly Sunday evening in January, against one of the Premier League’s sharper tactical minds? It turns out, just about, that he could.
When Tottenham play as they started on Sunday, with a midfield diamond, there is a vulnerability wide, behind the full-backs. Solskjær exploited that, setting Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial to peel wide and attack those areas, which meant Jesse Lingard effectively ended up as a false nine between them. Few teams go to Wembley and take on Tottenham with two up front, the result of which was the two centre-backs, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, repeatedly finding themselves two-on-two, a situation in which few modern defenders are comfortable.
Perhaps Solskjær’s acuity shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, he made a career of sitting on the bench working out where he should best target his runs – all he’s doing now is advising others rather than his own legs where to make them. Sir Alex Ferguson always said, for that reason, that he expected Solskjær to be a successful manager.
But this was also a Fergusonian strategy, in its boldness, risking losing the midfield battle, and in the fact that he always encouraged forwards to attack from out to in, something that reached its peak in 2007-08 when Cristiano Ronaldo was the central figure dropping deep and Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney exploited the space he created from the flanks.
Solskjær’s time at Cardiff perhaps deserves reassessment: he would not be the first manager to find their competence unfairly questioned after failing to overcome enormous differentials of resources and being relegated.
Perhaps it’s too easy to see evidence of Solskjær’s work in Rashford’s finish, to say there are signs he has brought technical improvement, but in that strike, driven low across Hugo Lloris into the bottom corner, and his goal at Newcastle, there is the sense of Rashford, a weight of critical inspection lifted from his shoulders, blossoming as a forward.
Early in the second half at Wembley came Mauricio Pochettino’s response. Tottenham abandoned the diamond and switched to a 4-2-3-1. Son Heung-min and Christian Eriksen moved wide, Spurs’ full-backs dropped deeper. The space into which Rashford and Martial had romped was gone. It became about hanging on. Solskjær couldn’t check the shift in momentum. Only the excellence of David de Gea prevented Spurs not just levelling but winning.
Pochettino called the second half the best 45 minutes Tottenham had produced under him – which may have been designed as a reminder to those who matter that he had not been tactically outwitted but was also possibly true. In terms of the battle of wits in the bench, then, a draw.
But the gap from Spurs to the leaders, Liverpool, is now nine points. Six games have been lost this season. Defeat at home to United follows home reverses against Liverpool and Manchester City. They are not title challengers and probably never were. The squad is beginning to look a little threadbare: Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko looked weary in Tuesday’s Carabao Cup semi-final but here they were again, asked to drag themselves through another game until the Frenchman suffered a muscular problem just before half-time. Winks, perhaps not surprisingly, was the only other Tottenham player substituted, withdrawn after 81 minutes. With Eric Dier and Victor Wanyama injured and Mousa Dembélé seemingly on his way to Beijing Guoan, there are few options.
Attacking reserves may soon be an issue as well, depending how serious Harry Kane’s ankle injury is, particularly with Son joining up with South Korea at the Asian Cup. Perhaps this is an unusual set of circumstances. Most clubs, after all, would struggle with five first-teamers out. But it does, yet again, highlight the lack of transfer spending in the summer and raise the question of just what, realistically, is achievable at Spurs. The mood, though, seems subtly to have shifted and while it would be misleading to say there is any certainty Pochettino will stay at Tottenham in the summer, that does now seem the slight probability.
That means United will have to consider their options and at least consider options beyond Pochettino. But as each week goes by, the man in possession is looking a stronger and stronger candidate. There are still questions, of course – can Solskjær devise a way of controlling a game against a top side? Does he have a mode other than firefight? Can he shut a game down? – but six successive wins is a fine way to start, and already he has demonstrated that he is more than just a mood-enhancer, that there is substance behind the smiles.