When domestic football resumes after the international break, we’ll find out a lot more about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s readiness for the permanent Manchester United manager’s job than we have in his three months in charge so far.
The Norwegian has done an impeccable job in dragging United back into top-four contention and miraculously overcoming Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.
But back-to-back losses in the Red Devils’ last two fixtures mean the former striker has to demonstrate how to overcome adversity and prevent a couple of unfortunate results from turning into the kind of slide in form that cost Jose Mourinho his job in December.
Reports suggest Solskjaer remains very much the frontrunner to be leading United out next season, but the spectre of Mauricio Pochettino continues to loom. Here, we way up the pros and cons of the two men in contention to be the next Old Trafford boss.
For the way in which he has reinvigorated United’s season – and for his connection to the club, owing to his 126 goals in 11 years as a player at the Theatre of Dreams and his part in 1999’s historic treble – Solskjaer is the overwhelming fans’ choice to land the role on a permanent basis.
Having learned at the feet of Sir Alex Ferguson, the 46-year-old understands what is expected at United: the attacking style of football fans demand, the commitment to giving chances to young players and how to engender a never-say-die spirit.
Solskjaer has also, to the surprise of many who remember his ill-fated spell in charge of Cardiff City, shown an impressive degree of tactical acumen, masterminding away victories over Arsenal, Chelsea, PSG and Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur.
What Solskjaer doesn’t have on his side, however, is a long track record of success at the highest level.
Although he has earned plaudits and won titles with Molde in his native Norway, Solskjaer has little in the way of relevant experience for the role he currently occupies.
As such, the sample size on which his suitability for the United job can be judged is small, made up of half a season at the helm in a caretaker capacity.
Mourinho’s presence at the club had become a toxic influence, with key players visibly unhappy and dour performances on the pitch. Solskjaer has remedied this in his short time in charge, but it remains to be seen just how much of the post-Mourinho turnaround must be attributed to the mere fact the Portuguese manager is no longer around, rather than the work done by his successor.
How United respond to their first setback under Solskjaer once Premier League action resumes will go some way towards answering this question.
Tottenham’s net transfer spend totals less than £30million since Pochettino took charge in the summer of 2014 – that’s at least £100million less than every other top-six club; they have been outspent in the transfer market by 18 clubs in Europe since 2010 – including the likes of Everton and Valencia; they have the lowest wage bill in the Premier League’s top six and the smallest revenue.
Considering the financial tide Pochettino continues to fight against, it is nothing short of remarkable that he has made Spurs top-four certainties and competitive in the Champions League, year on year.
The former Espanyol and Southampton boss also espouses an attacking, high-energy brand of football and has an exemplary record when it comes to developing young players into stars.
There’s one big, glaringly obvious hole in Pochettino’s CV: he’s never won a trophy as a manager.
This can mostly be explained away by all of the financial imbalances listed above in relation to Spurs’ standing versus English and European football’s other contenders for silverware; Tottenham are never among the favourites to win any major trophy at the start of each season, so it’s unfair to hold it against them or their manager when they don’t.
But United is a club where winning trophies is and will always be a priority. It may well be the case that Pochettino would adjust to a remit which prizes trophies over top-four finishes, and the greater transfer budget he’d receive could see him build a side capable of fighting on multiple fronts. But that, for now, cannot be taken for granted.
*all odds are subject to change
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by Tom Bodell