Football news - Ole Gunnar Solskjaer must show tactical nous to defeat direct rival for Man Utd job
It was a catalogue of failings which led to the sacking of Jose Mourinho as Manchester United manager, but less than a month later Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has the perfect stage upon which to stake a claim for the job on a permanent basis, writes Ben Grounds.
"Lads, it's Tottenham.”
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will have been present for the now infamous pre-match pep talk from Sir Alex Ferguson during Manchester United's dominant years in the Premier League.
The Scot's words, revealed in Roy Keane's second autobiography The Second Half, were a withering put down and all that were needed to train the minds ahead of facing perennially flaky opponents.
Solskjaer faced Tottenham 11 times as a player during his time at United, winning on nine occasions and losing just once - a 2-0 defeat at White Hart Lane in October 1999 when the striker played 22 minutes in the 3-1 defeat.
Solskjaer enjoyed plenty of success against Tottenham during his United playing daysGetty Images
His figures during those league encounters were hugely impressive, scoring seven goals and providing five assists.
But those days now seem a long time ago. The 3-0 reverse at Old Trafford earlier this season served to underline who now holds the upper hand in this fixture.
Indeed, Spurs are looking to win three consecutive top-flight meetings with United for the first time since September 1960.
After the most joyous of honeymoons as caretaker manager, 24 days in which a feel-good factor has returned to the corridors of Carrington, Solskjaer knows this weekend’s trip to face Tottenham will be the first real test of his tenure.
Will Solskjaer take a more cautious approach?
Marcus Rashford has been part of a free-flowing front three under SolskjaerGetty Images
Solskjaer has changed United's shape, and taking away his side's attacking influence might play into Tottenham's hands.
United have defended predominantly with a four and attacked with a six to dispatch inferior opposition in the manager’s first month in charge – but a different approach may be taken to nullify Tottenham’s fluid midfield.
United have been free-scoring with their forwards released from the shackles of the Jose Mourinho era. Unsurprisingly, Paul Pogba has been central to United’s return to power.
Solskjaer equalled Sir Matt Busby's record with four wins from his first four league matches - and making it six victories in a row in all competitions would represent a real statement.
Paul Pogba has returned to his best post under the affable NorwegianGetty Images
The first-team squad were handed a day off from the training ground on Friday ahead of the trip down south, and Pogba is expected to be fit after Jonjo Shelvey's reckless challenge ruled him out of the 2-0 win over Reading.
With four goals in his last three games, Pogba has been one of the stars of United's resurgence, and if this is to be a proper audition for both Solskjaer and Mauricio Pochettino for the United post, it is a shootout Pogba will relish back as the protagonist.
The likes of Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard have interchanged freely, while Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez have returned from their respective absences hungry to regain their place, working well as a pair either off the substitutes' bench in the win at Newcastle, or from the start against Reading.
Phelan is back in shorts and social media posts are believable
Mike Phelan has acted as a mouthpiece for Sir Alex Ferguson on the sidelinesGetty Images
It feels like United’s season is only just starting after the clear break from Mourinho at the end of the old year. 2019 marks a fresh start in which old faces have brought back a familiar feeling around these parts.
Mike Phelan was back smiling in United training gear. "Everyone's smiling and the shorts are back," were the words he offered on his social media account.
It's a far cry from the tail-end of the Mourinho era, a time when players shared identical posts clearly contrived by the in-house media team in an attempt to appear united.
It's far removed from Pogba and his cryptic "caption this" message which sat open for 10 minutes in the immediate aftermath of Mourinho's confirmed departure.
The last time the United squad checked into Stockport station ahead of a train journey to the capital to face Chelsea in October, they were fresh from a morale-boosting 3-2 win over Newcastle that merely papered over the cracks.
It represented just a fourth win of the campaign which moved them to 13 points from their opening eight matches.
The trip to Stamford Bridge would further lead to suggestions that United were returning to their old ways, denied victory in stoppage time by Ross Barkley's equaliser, but their autumn renaissance lacked conviction.
United's autumn revival proved a false dawn under Jose MourinhoGetty Images
United head to London this time around with renewed belief that they are back in contention for a Champions League place, just six points off Chelsea in fourth.
The calibre of opposition has been a big caveat to their upturn in fortunes, but another three points this weekend will mean they cannot be ignored.
Beating Spurs more than just three points?
United must show if they've progressed since the 3-0 home defeat in AugustGetty Images
When United were busy navigating their way to domestic titles under Ferguson, visits to Tottenham were just another signpost on the road, not the landmark success it would now represent for any side with hopes of winning the Premier League.
United have lost their last three away Premier League matches against Spurs, having lost just three of their first 23 against them in the competition between 1992 and 2014. But there is a feeling that this weekend’s encounter is coming at a good time for the visitors.
As caretaker manager, Solskjaer has so far brought some much-needed stability and injected confidence back into the players. A run of fixtures that has read Cardiff City, Huddersfield, Bournemouth, Newcastle and Reading in the FA Cup has been far from strenuous.
Solskjaer made it five wins from five in the FA Cup against ReadingGetty Images
Solskjaer already stands alone as the only manager in the history of the English game to win his first five games by two or more goals.
But should he mastermind a first away win over Tottenham since 2012, the Baby-faced Assassin would quite possibly have the biggest victim to his name. In defeating his direct competition to the job, victory would be every bit as satisfying as the 126 goals scored during his United playing career.
The Norwegian has always spoken in modest terms about the length of his stay being a temporary one, but were he to move clear of Busby in enjoying the best start to a managerial reign at United, he would be doing so at a fitting venue.
It was at this ground that the Scot enjoyed his greatest achievement, with European Cup success a decade on from the Munich Air Disaster.
Two clubs in construction
Harry Kane will lead Tottenham's charge once more at Wembley this weekendGetty Images
It's been another tiring week for Tottenham, but ultimately a successful one given their third successive victory over Chelsea and first blood in their Carabao Cup semi-final.
As with any obvious positive surrounding Pochettino's vibrant side, there's always bad news around the corner to bury it, and that came less than 24 hours after the 1-0 win over Maurizio Sarri's side.
The club's new stadium will not be ready until March, the club confirmed. Spurs will play at least five more home games at Wembley after the grand opening for the new White Hart Lane stadium was pushed back once again.
United supporters have been complaining of construction delays ever since Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement in 2013 with the latest attempt by Mourinho to rebuild the house amounting to little progress despite spending £400m on 11 players.
Mauricio Pochettino got the better of Jose Mourinho in AugustPA Sport
Mourinho's two-and-a-half years at the helm was not without its moments, but he was unable to build on silverware in his first season and a distant second place last term.
Mourinho himself had secured a 4-1 win over Fulham at the start of last month, but Solskjaer has taken what was seen as a gentle re-introduction and produced five wins with a swagger that is reminiscent of his time as a United player.
The improved atmosphere around Carrington has been typified in a tweet from Marcus Rashford as he, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial surrounded the interim boss during the club's recent trip to Dubai for warm-weather training.
Rashford and his team-mates are engrossed in the tale, told by a man who has been in their position and knows what it is like to represent Manchester United.
After showing excellent man-management skills to date since his loan from Molde, Solskjaer must now demonstrate tactical nous if he is to get the better of Pochettino.
After Mourinho had broken down the likes of Martial, Sanchez and Luke Shaw, Solskjaer has been busy building them back up - but exactly what he has done tactically remains unclear.
Tottenham away = Solskjaer’s first real test
Solskjaer has the full backing of fans but Spurs will provide his toughest test to dateGetty Images
At his Thursday night press conference, Solskjaer downplayed the notion that he has had a friendly fixture list thus far.
"We’ve had tests. Newcastle away is a test and the first game (at Cardiff) how everyone reacted is a test,” he said.
"The first home game with the crowd is a test. Every single game you get tested, but this is against top, top side. If we want to go closer and get past them, we need a good performance and a good result."
The baby-faced Solskjaer is still working on his poker face.
Solskjaer could land the job permanetnely if he secures a top-four finishPA Sport
Beating sides in the bottom half is far easier than bridging the current 10-point gap between the two sides, which indicates why Pochettino is so widely appreciated by those of a United persuasion.
Make no mistake: Tottenham will provide the stiffest assignment of Solskjaer's fledgling Old Trafford career as manager.
What United have shown in abundance since Mourinho's departure is a freedom of expression that Solskjaer has allowed, and having the right motivation has put right the wrongs in many teams before now.
Should Solskjaer show himself to have the necessary tactical substance to go alongside his infectious positivity, United may just stop fluttering their eyelashes in Pochettino's direction.