The Ole effect: Solskjær the familiar face that top six battle needed
Ole, Ole Ole Ole.
It has become a good old proper cry of hope and belief around Manchester United in the last few game weeks. With their 3-1 success over Huddersfield at Old Trafford, a usually sleepy hollow bereft of the lively essence that had made it a fortress for so many years, the sand in the pockets of the eyelids was wiped away, eyes were wide open and the United players have woken up from their slumber.
United’s last two matches have showcased the good and bad side of the current situation. The good has shown us that indeed, a different voice makes all the difference. Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s change of tone and mood from José Mourinho’s gloomy narrative has injected a belief that these players can actually play football.
Words such as “enjoyment” and “pressing high”. Paul Pogba being hailed as a game changer, someone who should be an integral part of the team. The passion, the desire; it’s all there to see. It must be music to the ears, a much more lively symphony that has the players constantly tapping their feet rather than dragging them through the mud.
The bad, of course, shows us that indeed, there could be a case for the idea of sabotage, players clearly against the Mourinho model and needing to see him swiftly moved on. These are the same players who week in, week out, were struggling to find their identity under him. Yet here they are, swashbuckling and all, playing the way we have been insinuating they should for what feels like forever.
Many will say that the good firmly outweighs the bad, that Mourinho’s ideas were not meant to gel with those of United’s heritage. There was a clash of philosophies, practices and, ultimately, egos. Solskjær has walked through the door and looked to bring back a bit of the Fergie days, a splash of Mike Phelan here and a dose of that bullish attitude there.
And if not for the effect that the Norwegian has had on United, then what more on the rest of the top six? As we speak, Pep Guardiola is in a cave, looking at the imprints on the wall, figuring out if all that he has taught himself was a lie. Liverpool have continued on their merry way, and Tottenham are now in second. Eden Hazard is world class again after his performance at Watford, and Unai Emery is now looking nervously over his shoulder.
And for all the qualities that the current top five have, the one differential that sits on Solskjær’s side lies in his long-standing ties with the club. A player under Sir Alex Ferguson for eleven years, then reserve team coach for a further three, Solskjær’s links enable his team to believe in themselves with the same conviction that he once did with Ferguson. He has taken the time to ring up his old boss for some wise words, all the better for a team that needed a positive twist.
Solskjær will know how much it means to everyone involved with the club, especially the supporters, who have endured an indifferent period after Ferguson’s departure. This feels familiar now, something that they can relate to and embrace more openly.
Perspective, however, is a beautiful realist, especially in situations like this. United have won against teams that they would be expected to beat regardless of the man at the helm. What is now noticeable, to Mourinho’s dismay, lies in the assured conviction of United’s play, with a clear identity to go with it.
United now sit eight points behind Chelsea. It doesn’t seem all that hopeless now, like a man waiting for a response from his life-long crush. Here, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and the top four is within touching distance. There will be trickier assignments for Solskjær – Tottenham Hotspur lie in wait three game weeks from now – but at least his familiar baby face is a source of confidence. He wasn’t here when United famously overtook Newcastle to the title in 1996, but he has used it as a reference point.
Because from now on, the top six battle isn’t just a stroll in the park. Teams will be wary of what United could come up with in the days ahead,and Solskjær will be at the very heart of it all.