Big Match

United's past, present and future to collide

Former star and interim boss Solskjaer faces Spurs' coach, his rival for Old Trafford red-hot seat

In 1998, Tottenham had agreed to buy a striker for £5.5 million (S$9.5 million). Both clubs' chairmen had signed the form, until the selling manager intervened.

Alex Ferguson told Ole Gunnar Solskjaer he did not want him to leave Old Trafford. It proved one of the former Manchester United manager's finest decisions: In May 1999, the substitute Solskjaer scored the Champions League final winner.

Twenty-one years later, it still has repercussions. Had the Norwegian joined Spurs, he would not have been the Manchester United great summoned to reconnect an underachieving club with its glorious past. And without that, he would not be in with a chance of replacing Jose Mourinho as United's permanent manager.

His greatest rival for the post is tomorrow's opponent: Tottenham versus United doubles up as a shoot-out between Solskjaer and Mauricio Pochettino.

The Norwegian brings a knowledge of life inside Old Trafford, an understanding of attacking traditions and the popularity that stems from both his playing days and his likeable personality.

He appeals to the nostalgic, but has shown an immediate ability to galvanise United's younger players. He has ditched some of Mourinho's pragmatic choices and played positive football.

Yet his disastrous spell at Cardiff raises questions if he can prosper at a higher level than Norwegian club Molde. His five United wins have come against inferior opponents.

This is a first test against peers whereas Tottenham, fresh from defeating Chelsea in their League Cup game, already have one major scalp this week and a growing record of beating the best at home.

Whereas Solskjaer has had five games at United, Pochettino is in his fifth year at Tottenham. The Premier League's most consistent overachiever promises sustainability.

Solskjaer has had an early effect on United's players, liberating them and allowing them to enjoy themselves, but, deprived of money to spend, Pochettino has continued to improve his Spurs charges. The Argentinian has shown he is tactically clever, swopping formations.

Solskjaer is channelling his mentor Ferguson, looking to outscore opponents. Pochettino's theories owe more to his initial influence, Marcelo Bielsa, the current Leeds manager who was the former coach of Argentina and Chile.

But a philosophy based around pressing and passing at pace makes Pochettino, like Manchester City's Pep Guardiola and Liverpool's Jurgen Klopp, ultra-modern.

Yet if the Argentinian is the outsider, he has a synergy with United: A willingness to trust in youth earned him Ferguson's admiration.

If two enthusiasts offer to be the antithesis of the serial complainer Mourinho, they are his opposite in another respect. Neither has won a trophy in a major league whereas United's last two appointments have been Champions League winners. That does not rule either out, which shows how much an ethos now matters. United have lost their way.

Solskjaer is a reminder of what they stood for, Pochettino of what they could embody. But, as they meet, it is Pochettino who has shown he belongs at this level and Solskjaer who has it all to prove.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2019, with the headline 'United's past, present and future to collide'. Print Edition | Subscribe