Will victory over Liverpool finally confirm Solskjaer for Manchester United's board?
Background photo: Xavoun, CC BY-SA 3.0
Since replacing Jose Mourinho on 18 December, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been the Edwin Moses of Premier League managers. He's cleared almost every hurdle placed before him in Olympic fashion. Running Manchester United has not been a smooth track for some time. The Norwegian makes it look easy. With each tricky jump completed, Solskjaer inches closer to a permanent appointment. Still, he hasn't crossed that line.
Most would argue that he has but if he can leap over one more big hurdle, it's difficult to see the United board continuing to look elsewhere. Liverpool lead the Premier League. Their comprehensive victory at Anfield led to Mourinho's sack. Ever since Sir Alex Ferguson said he intended to "knock the Reds off their perch", beating the Merseysiders is something every United boss is expected to do. Solskjaer knows it.
We’re playing Liverpool and we know how big that is for United, for our staff and for our supporters.
He also knows beating their title-challenging rivals is no mean feat. It demands a performance of the highest quality from Solsksjaer's squad. The Norwegian must show three fundamental tenets that all Manchester United need: tactical nous, willingness to attack and passion.
First, there is the tactical nous. United cannot go gung ho at their opponents and hope for the best. It has worked for them so far but would be suicide against this Liverpool team. Jurgen Klopp’s side can blow disorganised teams away with minimal effort. Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino must be taken into account. Manchester City learned that the hard way last season.
United cannot leave themselves exposed at the back without expecting to be taught a similar lesson. Solskjaer must set up his team to nullify Liverpool's potent attacking trio. Nemanja Matic's visit to Carrington this week was no coincidence.
@UnitedPeoplesTV believes it would effectively guarantee him the job. Do you agree?
Watch #MUFC vs #LFC from 2:05pm this Sunday. https://t.co/qDGTncvQpI
Solskjaer must also devise a scheme to control the game. Liverpool tend to struggle when teams block them out and dictate tempo. Bayern Munich demonstrated how it's done in the Champions League first leg, securing a goalless draw at Anfield in midweek. Javi Martinez's disciplined, experienced performance in midfield was key. Solskjaer needs a similar game from Paul Pogba.
That is not to say United should adopt an all-out defensive approach. Jose Mourinho’s reign came crashing down through pursuing that tactic.
Manchester United and Old Trafford expect attacking football, more so when Liverpool are in town. The North West Derby should never be dull or defensive. It's meant to be blood and thunder.
Solskjaer must win the ball and transition immediately. Liverpool show defensive strength this year but remain vulnerable. Their style allows opponents in. United should accept the invitation. This is a game made for Marcus Rashford.
Solskjaer’s plan must be as perfect as the one that dismantled Tottenham, an ideal blend of defence and attacking prowess. It’s a delicate balancing act that top managers regularly produce. To become United's permanent boss, OGS must walk that tightrope.
Once the plan is clear, it must be carried out with passion. Ole Gunnar's stewardship has been all about emotion. Sullen, disinterested United players are happy and engaged. When asked, they shout it from the rooftops. Their spirit is contagious. United fans contracted it from the Norwegian's first match. The mood around the entire club has been lifted.
Solskjaer's tactics must be designed to keep the crowd involved. Liverpool's struggles on the road in the Champions League this term and last suggest their performance can be affected by a hostile atmosphere. It is a trick Sir Alex Ferguson used to his benefit on many occasions. He was a master at communicating with fans. When Solskjaer ended an interview saying he "couldn't care less" after being asked if he thought Liverpool could win the Premier League this season, he offered a hint that he can play to the crowd as well.
“I couldn't care less!”
He told Sky Sports:
“I remember the interview, what I said was true!”
Legend. 😂 #mufc https://t.co/gTNsXPmg2v
Of course, it is a little early to suggest Manchester United are ready to decide Solskjaer’s future. United’s hierarchy never rushes to a decision even if Mourinho's termination came earlier than most anticipated. With games against Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea still to come, there are more hurdles for OGS to clear. Then there is the small question of how difficult [in plainer English, expensive] Molde intend to make it for their permanent manager to escape his contract.
All that acknowledged, Liverpool is the most important match for a United boss. Fans dealt with two Champions League defeats to Barcelona far better than they ever could a loss to the Reds at Old Trafford. Liverpool are the old enemy, the club who still define Manchester United because Fergie knocked Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Kenny Dalglish and Rafa Benitez off their perch.
If Solskjaer can defeat the club's greatest foe, the rest of his race should be a formality.