Life has been decidedly rosy at Old Trafford since December. The fresh air blown into the club by Ole Gunnar Solsjaer was very welcome indeed. The stiff, regimented football is gone, replaced by an altogether easier on the eye brand of playing the beautiful game.
Crucially though, results have been outstanding for the Norwegian during his opening two months in charge. Fans were crying out for a better, more adventurous brand of football as a starting point, with most having written off their top four chances altogether. Solskjaer, however, has flown out of the traps to take an incredible 25 points from his first nine Premier League games. No other manager in the history of the league has more points from his opening run of games.
This remarkable run of form has projected Manchester United into pole position for the final Champions League qualifying place as things currently stand and into the fifth round of the FA Cup. Not bad work at all, for your first two months in charge at one of world’s biggest sporting institutions.
Solskjaer though remains under no illusions about the interim nature of his contract with United. The club intend to make a permanent move for their new manager this summer, with all eyes set on Mauricio Pochettino at Spurs.
Many have dismissed Solskjaer’s chances of landing the job full time, citing new manager bounce stats and a favourable run of opening games, as muddying the waters and obscuring the former Cardiff City managers true abilities in the dugout.
If this is though, to be considered a job interview, then the Norwegian has undeniably passed the first round with flying colours. All he can do is win the games that come his way and continue to coach to the best of his ability, the wonderful players at his disposal. He has done both of those things superbly well, until now.
All the glossy Sky graphics aside, Solskjaer’s next few weeks in the United hot seat will really begin to tell us all if he is a genuine contender for the big job. Last Tuesday night he was treated to his first bitter taste of defeat since taking the job on. His players seemed to visibly freeze in the face of French Champions PSG at Old Trafford. While a 0-2 defeat is, on paper, not catastrophic, the manner of the performance rubs salt in to the wounds and means old questions begin bubbling back to the surface.
Just one shot on target was registered all night, as United were tormented by their former winger Angel Di Maria. It’s a sobering result that also leaves Solskjaer with his first real taste of turbulence at United.
Not only do they face elimination from the Champions League, but Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial have both been ruled out for up to three weeks with injury. To compound matters Paul Pogba got himself sent off after failing to impose his recent authority on the game. His absence, alongside that of Martial and Lingard, will be felt as United try and salvage their place in this season’s competition.
With Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal also coming up in the next fortnight, as well as that ominous looking second leg with PSG, this really is going to be a big test of Solskjaer’s suitability to life as Manchester United manager.
With nothing but plain sailing, great results and dramatically improved performances thus far, it’s how the Norwegian bounces back from this first set back, that will reveal a lot about whether he is true United manager material.
Martial and Lingard are pivotal to his style of play, but he must now find a way to cope without them. Excuses don’t go down too well at Old Tafford, as virtually every game is seen as a must win, if the club is to reclaim its status at the top of the English game. The fans will be expecting results from their forthcoming run of matches, regardless of the superior quality of opposition. The heat will be turned up on their interim boss if they stutter and fall during these fixtures.
Solskjaer knows the DNA of this club as well as anyone. He will be all too aware that his job interview is about to get serious. The honeymoon period is all but a memory after last Tuesday. If he can bounce back and engineer a way through this grueling run of games though, then he will have given the United hierarchy yet more to ponder this summer.