Kevin Garside: Now we see if Manchester United’s new boss is the real deal
Is he just another bus driver, as Louis van Gaal would have it, or is he capable of really taking the Manchester United wheel? We are about to find out.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could scarcely have done more to impress in the caretaker role, restoring lost lustre to a club desperately in need of renewal. While the job remains the same, the challenge has acquired greater weight since ownership of performance and results is now all on Solskjaer in a way it wasn’t when he came whistling into work as a temp absolved of any responsibility.
There will be ample demonstration of this in the home fixture with Watford, which will attract far more attention than it would otherwise have or deserves, tucked away as it is in the 3pm Saturday slot. He is, in effect, starting over, like graduates taking on a first career post.
United could hardly have acted any other way. Equally, as persuasive as he has been, there is still plenty of risk in the appointment because none can possibly know how Solskjaer will hold up under the increased pressure.
At least by making their move now, United are able to plan for the future with a degree of certainty. Bayern Munich have already announced their first signing for next season with an €80 million punt on French left-back Lucas Hernandez.
It won’t hurt that Solskjaer can point United at his targets immediately. The speculators are throwing plenty of galacticos United’s way. West Ham’s defensive anchor Declan Rice has entered a list that includes Jadon Sancho, Aaron Wan Bissaka, Toni Kroos and Marco Verrati, all of whom make sense.
If there was a universal truth that emerged from Van Gaal’s self-regarding prattle about his time at Old Trafford it was the need for world-class recruits in pivotal positions.
The most recent of Solskjaer’s three defeats, at Wolves in the FA Cup a fortnight ago, exposed the weakness in the present proposition.
United are short of a commanding ball-playing centre-back capable of breaking into midfield to initiate attacks. Against organised defences such as Wolves, the midfield lacks a can-opener to unlock defensive structures. Paul Pogba alone is insufficient. Teams just load up on him, inviting such as Nemanja Matic, Ander Herrara and Scott McTominay to inject invention they do not have.
The ball tends to move sideways and slowly. Further forward United have lacked a world-class No 10 since Wayne Rooney’s star faded. Jesse Lingard is not that player. On their day, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Romelu Lukaku can be devastating. Less so when Pogba, pictured, is disengaged.
Solskjaer’s observations suggest he has a grasp of the issues. Indeed he has missed little since taking charge. The mood in the camp is transformed, unrecognisable from the dystopian days of Jose Mourinho, which is one of the reasons United are in the fight for third, a position none thought possible in the dark days of December following the grim reverse at Anfield.
United scored five in Solskjaer’s first match at Cardiff, the first time they had managed that in the Premier League since Sir Alex Ferguson’s last game at West Brom. It was a transformative experience for player and fan, a moment of alchemy that cast Solskjaer in the role of mystic, forever plugged into the United world spirit. Cavalier FA Cup victories followed at Arsenal and Chelsea to augment the mythical aura that has attached during his short reign. Then came Paris, a result that defied all rational explanation and thrust United into the last eight of the Champions League and a date with Barcelona.
You suspect Leo Messi and the cosmic Barca ensemble might visit on United the ultimate reality check, that is if Watford or Wolves [again] do not get in first in matches that curiously seem harder already than they appeared when Solskjaer was playing only for laughs.
The tariff has gone up a notch with his permanent appointment. United have their man, Solskjaer the job he always wanted. The love is deep on both sides. That’s a start, and something to celebrate. For now.