Wednesday 20 March 2019

James Ducker: Solskjaer faces biggest challenge yet for cup run that may decide his managerial future

 

Manchester United caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA
Manchester United caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA

Analysis: James Ducker

The next few weeks could make or break Manchester United's season.

They could, in the context of a slightly surreal, condensed, whirlwind audition for the manager's job, also go a long way towards determining Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's prospects of becoming Jose Mourinho's permanent Old Trafford successor.

With Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard - two thirds of his first-choice attack - ruled out for a crucial run of high-pressure games over this period through injury, and without natural replacements in an ill-fitting squad to preserve his favoured way of playing, we are about to get a much clearer insight into Solskjaer the coach, organiser and creative thinker.

Having given United back some identity by establishing a very recognisable first team built on pace, penetration and high pressing in just two months, Solskjaer will now be tasked with making some sense from the remaining assortment of odd parts.

Can he find a way of dovetailing the very contrasting attributes of Romelu Lukaku, Juan Mata and/or Alexis Sanchez with Marcus Rashford without compromising the whole piece?

Or might he have something more unexpected in mind involving academy graduate Tahith Chong?

Either way, the process starts tonight against Chelsea in the FA Cup at Stamford Bridge, continues on Sunday when Liverpool visit Old Trafford in the Premier League and also takes in games against Crystal Palace, Southampton, Paris St-Germain and Arsenal.

Solskjaer has acknowledged that this could be the biggest test yet of his credentials, even if there is something disconcerting about trying to form such rapid judgment in three weeks, just as six months seems a ludicrously short period in which to successfully weigh up the overall candidacy of a man vying for one of the biggest and most demanding jobs in football.

This, though, is the situation that Solskjaer and United find themselves in.

From being appointed manager on an interim basis amid plenty of raised eyebrows and little expectation - internally as well as externally - that he would be a serious permanent option, the Norwegian is now being talked about as a viable alternative to the likes of Mauricio Pochettino after 10 wins from 12 matches and so much more in between.

Whereas there is a much deeper body of work for United to assess in relation to the Tottenham Hotspur head coach, Solskjaer, for all the goodwill he generated over 15 years as a player and reserve-team coach at the club, is effectively being measured by what he does over six months, given that a failed nine months at Cardiff and his work with Molde offer too few clues. It is why such onus is being put on spells such as the next three weeks.

Given how important it is that United get this next appointment right after almost six years of wrong turns, it is imperative that they do not get swept up in the moment, and avoid making what Gary Neville has called an "emotional" decision.

Trailing PSG 2-0 in their Champions League round-of-16 tie, the FA Cup appears to be United's last realistic shot at silverware this term while a top-four finish is back in their own hands.

Asked soon after his appointment what short-term success would be, Solskjaer cited a return to entertaining, attacking football over results.

It was an interesting position and made you wonder how much credence was being placed on style of play upstairs, even if it is hard to believe Champions League qualification was not the priority for owners obsessed with the bottom line.

Solskjaer has succeeded in delivering results and entertainment so far, but without Martial and Lingard to spearhead the attack alongside Rashford, both those targets become much harder to achieve.

He is now reliant on players who do not share the same level of trust or give him the leverage to place the same accent on attack, so he will have to modify.

He found a way against Arsenal in the last round of the cup but now must repeat the trick.

His ambitions of staying at United beyond the end of this season may hinge on it. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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