After saying goodbye to the hard-nosed approach of Jose Mourinho, some people have suggested that Manchester United have gone too far in the other direction in appointing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as their caretaker-manager until the end of the season.
Known for a beaming smile and a tender nature, the Norwegian returned to the club this week amid claims he will be too soft on United’s pampered first-team squad. And his potential plans for Paul Pogba were a particular bone of contention.
When Mourinho and Pogba went head-to-head and United’s results began to suffer as a result, it was the Portuguese who lost his job and the player who got to deliver a non-too subtle smirk on social media. For the club to then ask Solskjaer to man the fort for five months seemed to send a further message of support to Pogba given the former United striker’s previous comments regarding the Frenchman.
“I would [build the team around him], absolutely no doubt,” Solskjaer had said in the summer when asked what he would do if handed the reins at Old Trafford, and now that he has been given that opportunity the suggestion is that Pogba will have it all his own way. In truth, Solskjaer will need to be every bit as tough on Pogba as was Mourinho.
But there is a way of doing exactly that and still finding a way to get the World Cup winner in the positions in which he thrives far more often than has happened over the past two-and-a-half years. What Mourinho did with Pogba, and with the likes of Luke Shaw and Henrikh Mkhitaryan before him, went beyond tough love and ended up simply stultifying United’s biggest asset.
“Football is developing, the structure of the club has developed, but the power is with the manager. He picks the team, he picks the tactics, the strategy, the philosophy is in these walls,” he said. “So that legacy is more important than any player power, because I have to say being a part of Man United and being a Man United player is a privilege.
“We’re all different in how we manage people. Maybe I should get the hairdryer out of my pocket, because I’ve got a hairdryer! When my hair needs lifting I use it on myself, but I’m also not afraid of laying down the law.”
“We’ve spoken about what we expect, what standards we have on and off the pitch,” he added when asked about Pogba’s untimely Instagram post after Mourinho’s sacking. “I’m not on Twitter and Facebook but it’s just common sense for me that I’ve spoken to him about that.”
Just like Mourinho before him, how often Solskjaer is able to get the best out of the likes of Pogba, Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku will go a long way to deciding how his spell as United manager is remembered.
He spoke a lot on Friday about how managing great players is so much easier than dealing with bad ones, but if things start to go against United on the pitch and he has big decisions to make that may upset a big ego or two, then the true test will arrive. Can he rein in a Pogba or a Sanchez when they are in the mood to be mischievous?
United are not expecting miracles in terms of the league table, and a tilt at the top four would likely be considered a bonus at this stage. But more than that, they want the new manager to come in next summer to find the dressing room a united, happy place. And Solskjaer knows that’s his major remit.
“It’s not down to me now to talk about the last five years,” he said on Friday. “It’s down to me now to talk about the next five months, and work the next five months to get us happy, get us smiling, get us winning games, because we’re too far down the league.”
Making sure his star men have enough leeway to produce their best football but enough restraint to keep them toeing the line will be his biggest task between now and May.