Ole Gunnar Solskjaer still Manchester United’s liberator after beating Spurs – but success shouldn’t be overanalysed
History is full of famous liberators. The self-styled Liberatores (“et tu, Brute?”) who murdered Julius Caesar, not to know that he would be resurrected just over two millennia later as a Brazilian goalkeeper and would win the treble with Inter Milan. Simon Bolivar, Jose de San Martin and the fantastically named Bernardo O’Higgins, who led the liberation of South America from the Spanish Empire (and in whose honour the Copa Libertadores is named). The British tanks which helped to free Rome from occupation in 1944, one of which was carrying future Liverpool manager Bob Paisley.
And now Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, saviour of Manchester United, whose achievements since he rejoined the club in December have been allocated comparable fanfare in some quarters if not quite the same human significance.
Given how many times it has been written and said that Solskjaer has ‘liberated’ United in the last few weeks, it would be easy to assume he had smashed his way into Old Trafford on the back of an armoured vehicle, big grin plastered across his face and tin helmet tilted jauntily to one side. Really, his main success so far has been not being Jose Mourinho: not bullying his players, not smashing up water bottles on the sidelines, not pouring poison into the well of collective goodwill all the time.
That, in itself, seems to have freed up the likes of Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, and Solskjaer can certainly claim to have delivered them from Mourinho’s black moods and scathing public judgement with his contrasting brand of cheerful encouragement. Sunday’s visit to Wembley was widely heralded as the first rigorous test of his tactical acumen, however, with his first five wins coming in relatively favourable fixtures. There is nothing favourable about facing Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham, third in the table at kick off and a full 10 points ahead of Solskjaer’s team.
If this really was the first serious test of Solskjaer’s dexterity as United manager, he achieved more than just a pass mark. In what was a fluid and open game with attacking flair on both sides, United were excellent at pressing pressure points and executing double-speed counters. The defining moment of the match involved two of the players who have benefited most from Solskjaer’s arrival, with Pogba setting up Rashford to score a goal that was dripping in narrative. Pogba’s cross-field long ball to set away his teammate could easily have been a highlight from his time in the black and white of Juventus, while Rashford’s slashed finish across Hugo Lloris and into the far corner – scored at only a slight let-up from full pace as he shaped to shoot – was essentially the ideal striker’s goal.
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It was not a dominant showing from United, with David de Gea giving one of the impassable performances which have made his reputation as one of the best goalkeepers in the world. In the second half alone, he saved two lashed shots from Harry Kane at his feet, three wicked efforts from Dele Alli, a near-post thumper from Toby Alderweireld at a corner and several other snatched chances. Kane did have the ball in the back of the net in the first half, but the flag was rightly raised for offside. Other than that it was as if De Gea had magnetic gloves and the ball was made of iron filings.
It would be a mistake to read too much into the result from a Tottenham perspective: Pochettino’s side did their thing and, were it not for De Gea, would have got something from a game which zinged with goal threat from both teams. In the end, they were restricted time and again by De Gea and suffered a narrow defeat which they should be able to rationalise fairly easily, despite their obvious frustration.
United, meanwhile, remain unburdened and full of confidence under Solskjaer, even if the short-term nature of his caretaker role allows him to prioritise enjoyment over responsibility and advocate a high-risk approach. It may already be a cliche to write about Solskjaer in the language of liberation – and to overanalyse what is essentially football reconstituted as straightforward fun – but if he was brought in to break the miserable restraints of the Mourinho era then, having made it six wins from six, he is doing an admirable job.
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