As Manchester United continue to glide along in the still-embryonic stages of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s stint as manager, it remains to be deciphered whether this five-game win streak is due to the presence of one head figure, or the absence of another recently departed.
Like with many of the questions that float around the business of football, the answer may contain a sprinkle of all the given possibilities. It’s not one thing, but it is not entirely this other thing either.
How often have you heard pundits, reluctant to state their position on one side of the fence or the other for fear of potential backlash, structure their answer to a particular question put to them around the template “a bit of both”.
Jose Mourinho may have been just as happy to be given the boot as any United fan who saw the erstwhile manager as nothing but a toxic presence.
Most of Mourinho’s thoughts on the decision to sack him came as eager reporters scampered alongside him, doing their best to simultaneously keep abreast of the subject while walking and holding a mic up to catch every word.
There were no harsh words, no lingering statements from these road-side snippets. Mourinho’s general mood and tone was that of a man who has finally been relieved of his duties of a role he never enjoyed to begin with.
That was always there. It was hard to ignore. From his very first press conference as United boss, in each post-match interview whether his team had claimed a win or suffered a loss, the sense that Mourinho wasn’t happy always sat there like a stomach cramp.
Silverware was acquired during his two and a half years, as Mourinho himself would no doubt point to first and foremost.
But his inexplicably sour relationship with certain players, with the chairman Ed Woodward, and on numerous occasions with the media, was all going to end inexorably with Mourinho’s sacking. The timing of the decision to let him go surprised many, and after endless column inches have been spent, after nearly every person with a voice in the game had their say on why and where it went wrong, we have eventually come out the other side, and now a much-loved former player occupies the dugout.
If it was indeed the moody and malevolent nature of the previous manager and his negative tactics on the pitch that caused the players to under-perform, then surely the absence of such would mean these players, mostly top-class performers by their standards, would begin to play well again and put in more of a fight.
Solskjaer is a legendary figure at Old Trafford. “The baby-faced assassin”, as he was dubbed during his eleven-year stint at the club, supplied probably the most significant kick of a ball in United’s history.
A close-range flick-in on the volley at the far post was enough for the Norwegian to secure United’s 1999 treble success. “And Solskjaer has won it!” were the words of commentator Clive Tyldesley as the players ran off to celebrate. A late comeback against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final in Barcelona’s Camp Nou made Solskjaer another player carved forever into Man United’s history.
Despite his poor record managing in the top flight, with his brief time as Cardiff boss in 2014 ending in relegation, the announcement of the decision to bring him in to replace Mourinho was met with relative open arms. Though, as a sign of how negative the mood had become at the club, it could also be argued that any face other than Mourinho’s in the press conferences and on the sidelines would have been greeted warmly.
But Solsjkaer is likeable, friendly and is greatly familiar with the lofty standards that are required of a Manchester United manager. But being aware of what is needed in a role, and possessing the ability to match those requirements are quite obviously miles apart.
He knows the club. It is heard a lot when a caretaker manager is introduced, one who has been long-associated with a club, who was perhaps a long-term assistant manager, a former player. But you ask John Carver, you ask Thierry Henry, you ask anyone who has taken a manager’s role with a great knowledge of the club behind them, and they will tell you without a doubt that it simply is not enough to just know the club.
Having said all this, it is now five wins from five matches for Solskjaer. Granted, United’s opponents have been sides that currently occupy the lower depths of the Premier League table, but it doesn’t exactly belittle the manager’s start to life in his new job.
But the question remains, and remain it just might for the rest of the season. In the summer, the answer will determine whether Solskjaer will be offered the job full time.
United travel to Wembley this weekend to face a Tottenham side in the midst of a title race that all too often excludes them as potential victors. A slip up against Wolves during the Christmas period cost Pochettino’s side. Had the loss been a win for the home side instead, then Spurs would currently be sitting in second place, just three points shy of first placed Liverpool.
United fell to a miserable defeat to Spurs at Old Trafford last August, back when grumblings about the manager were just beginning to increase and his days thought numbered from then on.
A win for Solskjaer at Wembley would be enormous. Of course the result itself would be huge and it would prove to the fans, and even the players themselves, that this side are still good enough to match up against the country’s best.
But perhaps even more significantly, it would be a great indication as to the answer of the looming question.
Perhaps the victory will be enough to put forth that Solskjaer is having the effect on these players, and it is not the absence of Mourinho that is the overriding factor.