Meet the new boss… Definitely not the same as the old boss.
With five wins in five matches, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is off to a flying start as caretaker manager for Manchester United. In addition to significantly boosting morale, the United legend has his squad playing the kind of free-flowing attacking football not seen since the Ferguson Era. In the five matches since firing Jose Mourinho, United have scored 16 and conceded three (albeit against a few bottom-table teams and a Championship side that could be League 1 by this time next year). Compare that to Mourinho’s final ten matches in charge, where they tallied 16 scores while giving up an un-Mourinho like 15 and it’s easy to see why some players are acting like they have a second-lease on life.
“Football is easy if you’ve got good players,” Solskajer said after his first match in charge, a 5-1 mauling of Cardiff City, the team that had previously sacked him.
Obviously, football (and management, in particular) is more complicated than simply having good players. But Solskjaer’s one-liner reveals a central truth about a manager’s job: How you set up your team depends on whether you trust your players more than you fear the other team. Ferguson usually trusted his players, most famously giving a pre-match pep talk that consisted of one line: “Lads, it’s Tottenham.” Moyes, who never got out of his small-club manager’s mentality, did not – as evidenced by his one-dimensional tactics and emphasis on set-pieces. Neither did Louis van Gaal, who employed a possession-heavy system, partly, to prevent the other team from scoring. As for Mourinho, avoiding mistakes is the key to his entire being.
Solskjaer, though, seems to be cut from the Ferguson cloth – at least when it comes to playing attacking football. Some of his tactical changes have been incremental, including telling the fullbacks to push up and take part in the attack, having Romelu Lukaku play more as a center forward and less as a traditional target man and unleashing Paul Pogba to orchestrate the attack and make runs into the box.
Mostly, he seems willing to take off the leash and let the horses run free. Manchester United’s best moments under Mourinho often came when they had to come back from a deficit and threw out the gameplan. With so many gifted playmakers and attackers (and mediocre or poor defenders), there’s long been an argument that the best approach for this team was to throw on its best offensive players and make the put the onus on the other team to try and stop them. Sure, it’s a risky strategy – indeed, the post-Mourinho team still shows vulnerability to set pieces and counterattacks. For instance, Newcastle would have beaten or drawn United last week if Christian Atsu had put on his finishing boots. But with this team, it might be the only way forward.
Tougher tests, obviously, await Solskjaer and United. Nevertheless, the “Baby Faced Assassin” has restored hope to a squad that was bereft of it when he was hired, and for the first time in a while, the Top Four Trophy seems attainable.
And if that happens, then surely he must get the job permanently, right?