Miguel Delaney: 'Ole Gunnar Solskjaer shows Arsenal what the alternative to Unai Emery looks like'
By the time that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was finalising his plan for Paris Saint-Germain, and had to speak to the international media for the pre-game press conference, he realised this was a moment for more than inspirational soundbites. He realised this was an opportunity, that could actually serve that plan. He realised it could be much more than a press conference.
Solskjaer began to assertively talk about exactly how Manchester United could navigate their Champions League second leg against PSG and knock them out. Most impressively, he spelled out some specifics - how a goal at the right time could cause the French champions to “doubt” themselves, how the key would be staying in it until a late surge in the crucial late stages.
Most importantly, he sounded so convincing. And not just to the media. To his players. That was the real point of this. They visualised it. They began to believe it could happen. And what happened?
It marked quite a difference to the manager Solskjaer meets this Sunday at Arsenal, who found himself on the opposite side of the most similar situation to Wednesday, and one that hung over that entire night at Parc des Princes.
Unai Emery was the manager who oversaw PSG’s first and most famous farcical Champions League collapse, that 6-1 at Barcelona.
The job really shouldn’t have been easier. A 4-0 lead like PSG enjoyed had never been overturned in over six decades of the competition, and all he really had to do was set the right solid team, and at this juncture the right tone. There was none of that. There was only apprehension.
There was uncertainty, and unclear statements that said nothing much at all.
Emery’s curious demeanour struck everyone in the Camp Nou press room that day. One figure connected to Barcelona who was watching from the back turned to a colleague and remarked “it’s like he’s petrified this can actually happen”.
And what happened?
It is the most extreme of examples, of course, but feels all the more relevant ahead of the visit of Solskjaer on Sunday.
Because, after the way the Manchester United manager made everyone imagine that victory against PSG was possible, it’s impossible not to imagine what Arsenal might have been like had they gone with their own Solskjaer.
That was Mikel Arteta, and that was the appointment they were considering before Emery.
In the same way that Solskjaer has offered his own tribute to Sir Alex Ferguson, Arteta would surely have done that with Arsene Wenger and Pep Guardiola. He just picked up so much.
There would have been more feel to it all.
Because this genuinely goes beyond mimicry, mere soundbites, “putting smiles on faces” and press conferences - even in a world where one reason Arsenal ultimately dispensed with Wenger was because Stan Kroenke saw empty seats at the Emirates on US television.
Emery is a good manager, with a fine record, but it is not for nothing some around Arsenal have described him as “a rare football figure so lacking in charisma”. One regular joke around press conferences is whether he will ever actually say anything quotable.
Whereas Solskjaer seems to make sure he makes the right impression in almost every public appearance, it is as if Emery almost goes out of his way to say nothing. And that is in both English and Spanish.
These are obviously the sort of superficial obsessions rendered irrelevant by good results and good football, but that’s also the point.
Emery has been fine, and the team has mostly looked competent as they remain competitive for the Champions League places, but have they been good enough to justify an appointment that still feels as if it is just reducing a figurehead role to something more functional? Something that feels as if any technocrat coach can do it?
Should there be more to it?
It is conspicuous that an air of complaining and drabness has returned to the Emirates so quickly. It didn’t take long. There’s just not that much excitement around the place at the moment, and Arsenal are not currently that much of a story.
Similarly, for all that other supporters inevitably mock the United fans’ rapturous response to just how much Solskjaer “gets it”, it’s difficult not to think many of them envy it. This is what many would crave.
A manager getting the results they dream about, and just generally comporting himself in a manner they idealise.
Solskjaer also perfectly displayed against PSG how all of this - and “the vibe” - can actually have a tangible influence on performance and results. It is all part of a bigger picture, maybe a “holistic” choice, as Manchester City famously used in first looking to bring in Guardiola.
And perhaps this points to an evolution as regards choices of managers in general. Against the technocrat continental style of Emery, Solskjaer may well represent a new breed of coach more emotionally tuned to the modern player.
The rancorous case of his very predecessor at United, Jose Mourinho, displays this may be more relevant than ever.
The United players now “love” Solskjaer, and feel completely in thrall to him, convinced he has “a magic touch”. They were gleefully singing the fans’ song about him in the Parc des Princes dressing room on Wednesday, before gleefully offering social media posts about what a legend he is.
Emery’s own experience shows how fragile this can be, mind. The Arsenal players were hugely taken with him in that initial autumn winning run, and willing to buy into everything, only for that to gradually fade as the novelty wore off. There are no real problems with him now - beyond the mystery of Mesut Ozil - but there isn’t a grand excitement either.
There isn’t what is at Old Trafford.
It may not last, of course. There is already a sense - in some ways only bolstered by what happened in Paris - that this is all just going too well; that it’s unsustainable. Many in analytics are already fairly pointing to United’s numbers, and how they are performing to extremes that are likely impossible to keep up, and that a regression is inevitable.
That may well start against Arsenal. Emery remains a fine manager, after all, with a brilliant tactical brain.
He may well start to upend the race for the top-four by inflicting Solskjaer’s first league defeat.
It’s just that the United manager has already been talking about how he’s preparing for that. He’s already set the right messages there. They are more than optics. They are why Solskjaer has become more than a stand-in. Emery is contractually much more than a stand-in for Arsenal. But that’s not always how it feels.
Independent News Service