Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has made no secret of his desire to become Manchester United’s permanent manager, so an encounter with the current favourite for the job, Mauricio Pochettino, this Sunday gives the interim Old Trafford boss the best and most direct chance he’ll have to prove he’s a stronger candidate for the role.
And a win over Tottenham really would be something. This is a side that dished out a 3-0 defeat to United at Old Trafford earlier this season, that have failed to win just three of their last 18 games, that have scored 23 goals in their last six games, that have suddenly emerged as outside competitors to Liverpool and Manchester City in the title race.
Manchester United will be optimistic heading to Wembley, because of the instantaneous lift Solskjaer’s soft and smiley brand of management has created. The Norwegian has overseen five straight victories and 16 goals; that’s almost a third of United’s entire scoring total, across all competitions, from the Jose Mourinho portion of the season.
But fundamental problems remain. United are still perilously vulnerable whenever they don’t have the ball, to the extent that even the division’s lowest goalscorers Huddersfield found the net against them in a 3-1 win just as Cardiff had done four days prior, and it’s still not wholly clear what United’s strongest starting XI actually is, especially now that Romelu Lukaku has returned to the fold.
For Solskjaer to remedy those problems in such a short space of time by making difficult selection decisions and setting out a United team capable of minimising the world-class attacking threat of Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen would be an enormous achievement for a manager whose track record includes two spells at Molde, either side of overseeing Cardiff’s relegation.
And yet, even if Solskjaer were to mastermind a victory that would instantly fuel the debate over his credentials to take the role permanently, history tells us extensions of interim roles are nearly always a poisoned chalice.
Looking at 14 of the most famous temporary appointments that were made full-time in the Premier League, only Garry Monk, Stuart Pearce, Steve Kean and Chris Coleman – with Swansea, Manchester City, Blackburn and Fulham respectively – managed to last 18 months from the moment they were made permanent managers, while Darren Moore is still in the job at West Brom.
Of course, many of those appointments involved middle and lower table clubs, caught in the cycle of fire-and-hire as they sought to achieve Premier League survival. But the examples from the top of the Premier League are both even more relevant and even more concerning.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has caused a stir in Norway! Watch the video above to find out what we’re talking about…
Perhaps Roberto Di Matteo is the most notorious case, sacked six months after helping Chelsea to their first ever Champions League title, but even a legend like Kenny Dalglish could only hold onto the Liverpool job for a year after taking temporary charge from Roy Hodgson, his final campaign seeing the Reds record their lowest final standing, eighth place, since 1994.
There is no obligation for history to repeat itself, but Solskjaer inevitably feels like a mixture of both instances. Like Di Matteo, he’s under-qualified as a manager for the job at hand; like Dalglish, he’s a legend at the club, somebody all players of all abilities have an instant respect for – perhaps, in some ways, too much respect.
And there are fundamental reasons why successful interim managers inevitably struggle to keep the good times rolling. The first is exactly that – the good times, the honeymoon period that immediately follows their arrival. That’s what Solskjaer’s enjoying right now but it won’t last forever, – soon he’ll battling against self-raised expectations.
More intrinsic though, is the sheer nature of the role itself, because interim managers will never be held accountable for failing to address long-term problems at source. Whether their approach is to pave over the cracks and create the perception of a happy family – as Solskjaer has done at Old Trafford – or to ostracise troublesome individuals for the sake of the remainder of the squad, it will be someone else who eventually suffers the consequences and picks up the pieces. For all intents and purposes, it’s a free hit – a big upside with little to lose. You can afford to be radical.
Then comes the first transfer window in official charge, and this is probably the real killer when compared to a new manager coming in. Whereas Mauricio Pochettino can demand a certain transfer budget to rebuild the team around is own ideas, an interim manager who has already proved he can get something out of the current squad starts to suffer from his own success.
Pochettino can demand a new centre-forward; the board will ask Solskjaer why he wants one if he’s already got Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku scoring again. Pochettino can insist on a new centre-half; Solskjaer will be asked to continue overseeing Victor Lindelof’s impressive improvement. Nobody should be in the business of spending for the sake of it, but it’s clear this current United squad needs significant change. The club will be that bit more reluctant to instil it, if Solskjaer consistently delivers strong performances and good results.
Impressing as an interim manager is all well and good, and Solskjaer’s spell comes at an invaluable time for a club that needs to reflect its own practices and re-evaluate its own identity. But the context of the role is just so different to a permanent job. Yes, it comes with its own unique set of challenges, but none that come with the same long-term ramifications.
And in many ways, a showdown with Pochettino captures this problem in a microcosm. In the short-term, a win over a current top four side would serve United incredibly well. In the long-term, if it pushes Solskjaer ahead of Pochettino in the reckoning of the board, it could quickly come back to bite them.