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Tottenham won't paint the full picture for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Monday 31st December 2018

Image: Martin Palazzotto, CC by SA-4.0

If football managers were impressionist painters rather than opinion-filled punters, they’d fall into two categories. They’d either be Van Goghs or Gaugins.

With its vivid colours splashing across the spectrum, impressionism is about as expressive a medium as you can get while still maintaining any discipline [sorry abstractionists]. Yet, a strong element of realism is required, just as footballers must play with and without the ball.

As it happens, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gaugin were opposites who attracted. Best of friends, they also argued frequently. Van Gogh lost his ear after Gaugin came down to Arles, a sleepy town in southern France halfway between Marseilles and Montpellier, for a visit. Van Gogh had left the City of Light to hide away from everyone and produce something like 300 paintings. No one is certain how it happened but on the night VVG lost his ear, Gaugin abruptly returned to Paris. Either he did it and fled or the wound was self-inflicted before or after his departure.

All that’s important to this thread is the odds favour one of the self-inflicted theories. Van Gogh was intensely introverted, one who felt the entire world was against him. Gaugin was a gadfly who travelled to exotic locales to paint even after he married. Think Jose Mourinho as Manchester United manager and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer promising Molde he’ll be back soon when the opportunity to try his hand at a masterpiece in Old Trafford arose.

Van Gogh and Gaugin dealt differently with the pressure of being a starving artist dependent on a wealthy patron. The Dutchman withdrew deeper into himself. Gaugin travelled further abroad, revelling in everything life had to offer while worrying less about his personal obligations.

Jose Mourinho hasn’t cut off any body parts of which I’m aware, but the notorious Third Season Syndrome is a comprehensive bit of self-harm that also affects those surrounding. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants his squad to enjoy playing for him.

Mourinho’s dark moods and harsh brushstrokes produced several brilliant masterpieces with United, many in the shape of stunning fight-backs after falling behind against lesser teams or even Manchester City. Solskjaer doesn’t need to create darkness to let his light shine.  

The question yet to be answered regarding the Norwegian is how he’ll take his first setback? He is not the type to brood like his predecessor but it remains to be seen whether he’ll take the easy way out, letting it all fall to pieces while he returns to Molde, or dig in and start anew on canvas after new canvas until he has it right.

Under OGS, Manchester United are steamrolling all comers. The Red Devils are 12-3 on aggregate against Cardiff City, Huddersfield Town and Bournemouth. Their play is just what an impressionist desires: brilliant, colourful footballing masterpieces.

Paul Pogba's been freed to paint a new portrait of himself.
Paul Pogba's been freed to paint a new portrait of himself.

Image: Martin Palazzotto, CC by SA-4.0

It may surprise those who think in simpler terms but Mourinho was an impressionist as well. Although he feared applying his most brilliant colours to the most challenging canvases, such as Liverpool and Manchester City, he had one final three-game run in him before his departure, scoring eight goals against Southampton, Arsenal and Fulham.

The Gunners were on a different level than the Saints and Cottagers. You could forgive Jose for coming away from those three matches with seven points rather than the nine OGS claims as United boss. Unfortunately, the haul was just five, equal to the number of goals the squad conceded despite the attention to detail for which their defensively disciplined obsessionist gaffer was known.

Even though Solskjaer enjoys a goal difference three times greater than Mourinho in suitably comparable samples, it’s defending under the Norwegian that gives United fans pause. He’s scored more and conceded less than his predecessor but the absence of a clean sheet [which Mourinho couldn’t seem to keep either] leaves everyone feeling like they’re waking to a false dawn.

What will happen when we go to Spurs, they ask? Well, you can compare Solskjaer’s United squad to Marco Silva’s Everton, notice the shellacking Tottenham slapped on the Toffees and worry yourself into cutting off your ear. Or you can acknowledge it’s a stern test for United that most probably will end in defeat. Mauricio Pochettino’s side already proved they have the quality to cause United problems under Mourinho. We can only wait to see whether a new attitude will reveal the two sides are evenly matched or Spurs remain the better.

If either proves the case, I put it to you that the more important match is the one that follows. If United are beaten soundly, barely edged, squeak out a draw, steal or plunder an away win against the title-challengers, how they deal with the result will reveal more about the team’s mentality and the manager’s than we know after walking through the park with three clubs struggling in the Premier League’s bottom half.

Will they respond to defeat or firm resistance with renewed determination or crumble? Will victory leave them too full of themselves or feeling they have more to prove this season and can?

If you don’t have your calendar memorised or to hand, the opponent following Spurs is Brighton. Chris Hughton’s squad brings up the rear in the mid-table but have been something of a bogey team for Manchester United during the Mourinho era, claiming two victories from the Mancunians' most recent trips to the AmEx Stadium. The late January meeting comes at Old Trafford where Mourinho won comfortably but a future canvas is always blank. Recent events more than any past history will colour it.

So, worry all you like about Ole Gunnar’s first top-six test in a fortnight. I’m more concerned with what lies on the other side.

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Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.

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