Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United head to Wembley Stadium this weekend to take on Mauricio Pochettino’s in-form Tottenham Hotspur side.
The encounter represents the first major test of the Norwegian coach’s reign at Old Trafford so far. The Red Devils have made a fine start to life under Solskjaer, earning victories against Cardiff City, Huddersfield Town, Bournemouth, Newcastle United and Reading, but the test that Spurs promise is an altogether different proposition.
Not only is this a big challenge for Solskjaer, but this match also represents a huge crossroads in United’s campaign. The trajectory of the rest of their season – and of Solskjaer’s time in charge of the club – may well be decided on Sunday.
Quite how big an impact Solskjaer has already had at Old Trafford is, in a sense, hard to judge. Of course, results and performances have improved drastically in his short tenure, but to what extent that is due to a kind of relief and freedom being felt by the players having escaped the miasmic clutches of Jose Mourinho is impossible to say. What’s more, United could simply be currently enjoying the effects of the fabled ‘new manager bounce’.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has caused a stir in Norway! Watch the video above to find out what we’re talking about…
Just how solid the foundations of Solskjaer’s United revival are though is what we are about to find out. Victory on Sunday would be momentous and could set the course for United to claw back some of the ground lost on their rivals and restore some pride before the end of the season. Defeat, on the other hand, could have a devastating effect.
Five wins on the spin against the sides Solskjaer has faced so far is one thing, victory away from home against one of United’s big six rivals is quite another. Mourinho lost the ability to rouse his side for such occasions, as his ultimately decisive final defeat at the hands of Liverpool is testament to.
However, if the United squad are so energised by the arrival of a fresh guiding voice that they’re able to overcome Spurs – who are enjoying an eight-match winning run of their own – then it will be safe to say that Solskjaer’s effect has been a true, tangible one.
However, if United lose – or, more pertinently, lose in an uninspiring, toothless manner that demonstrates a lack of attacking ambition – then they could quickly find themselves back at square one. Such a result and performance would undermine the progress that has supposedly been made under Solskjaer and would also reveal the limitations of the influence that the new man can have. This could have profound knock-on effects at the club too.
While Solskjaer has played down the idea of fresh arrivals this month, he has confirmed he will have some input into the club’s transfer plans following speculation that he could be given £50million to spend. This would imply that the Old Trafford hierarchy have faith in the former striker to spend wisely in the market, but such belief in his ability to take this team forward could be eroded by yet another humiliating defeat suffered by the club at the hands of a rival.
At the same time, a reduction in their hopes of qualifying for the Champions League would surely push the club towards recruiting in the summer rather than this month, when deals are always problematic. Therefore, the outcome of Sunday’s fixture could have serious implications for United’s January transfer plans.
Another consequence of defeat would be the growth of the gulf between United and the rest of the Premier League’s leading pack. Arsenal, currently fifth, face West Ham at the weekend and Unai Emery’s men will be the favourites to take all three points. If they do so, and United leave Wembley Stadium with nothing, the gap between them and fifth place will stretch to at least six points. What’s more, United’s already faint hopes of mounting a spectacular recovery and challenging for a Champions League spot will be all but extinguished.
Finally, a loss on Sunday could destroy the United squad’s confidence, which is already likely to be fragile. For all of their recent positivity to be wiped out by being outclassed by Tottenham would be hard to take, and even harder to recover from.
The honeymoon period for Solskjaer is over. This weekend could be the making or the breaking of his interim spell in charge at Old Trafford.