Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was ready for the question. It comes most weeks, in some shape or form, but this time, with Paris Saint-Germain’s visit to Old Trafford starting a run of three huge games for the Manchester United caretaker manager, it seemed pertinent.
“Do you think the games against the likes of PSG and Liverpool will be decisive in your chances of getting the job (permanently)?” Solskjaer was asked at his prematch press conference ahead of Tuesday’s Champions League round-of-16 first leg against the French champions.
“That’s too simple,” Solskjaer replied. “You need to change the script now. You’ve got so many ways to ask those questions, but there are still a few more months left of the season for me to do whatever I can for the club.”
As usual, Solskjaer smiled and moved on, but the reality is that he keeps being asked about his future because he is building an irresistible case to be handed the task of managing United on a full-time basis.
Statistically, his record of 10 wins in 11 games since succeeding Jose Mourinho in December – “The players are still disappointed with the two points we dropped (vs. Burnley) and so am I” — is the kind of form that would automatically make him a strong contender for the permanent job.
But his performance in front of the media on Monday at Old Trafford was a further example of why the 45-year-old is rivalling Mauricio Pochettino and Massimiliano Allegri as a candidate under consideration from the club’s owners, the Glazer family, as Mourinho’s long-term successor.
Solskjaer is not only winning games like a United manager is expected to win, he is also talking and acting like one.
Of the other men to follow Sir Alex Ferguson, David Moyes failed to do either, while Louis van Gaal was too keen to talk about his own philosophy and previous achievements, rather than those of the club, during two dull seasons in charge.
And Mourinho, who United thought would sprinkle stardust over Old Trafford again, won plenty of games and a couple of trophies, but became so negative and self-obsessed that his public utterances were generally complaints about anything from the club’s spending to the weather and traffic in Manchester.
Solskjaer, by contrast, knows which buttons to press and it was like watching Ferguson at times during his news conference. Where Mourinho would be brusque and dismissive, rarely talking up United’s European history, Solskjaer was quick to recall the big nights at Old Trafford that he is determined to witness again against PSG.
“It has been a while (since a big European night here),” he said. “Maybe if you look back, maybe one of the last few exciting knockout games was Real Madrid (2013), when Nani was sent off. We had Bayern Munich a few years ago (2014) so we’re looking forward to this; the supporters and the players have been looking forward to it, they’re special nights.”
Solskjaer used a famous game from his own career as a signpost to the mindset he expects on Tuesday night.
“My last was Roma (2007), when we beat them 7-1, on a typical Old Trafford night,” he said. “We lost 2-1 away from home and the manager was so happy: ‘We’ll win at home,’ he said, because he had so much belief in the players. And I just want my players to go into this game confident and raise their game.”
But while there Solskjaer can seem romantic as he makes nostalgic recollections to life in the “good old days” under Ferguson, he also has a tough streak and it is that, rather than the nice guy persona, which he might ultimately need to show if he is to become United’s next manager.
There have been glimpses, such as decisions to drop Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez and to sell Marouane Fellaini, but as the weeks progress and the games get bigger, Solskjaer will have to make even bigger calls.
From his early games in charge to wins at Tottenham in the Premier League and Arsenal in the FA Cup, he has passed every test and met every challenge so far, but the next two weeks will be crucial. PSG’s visit is Solskjaer’s first Champions League examination and is followed by an FA Cup fifth-round trip to Chelsea and a Premier League encounter with Liverpool at Old Trafford.
If he emerges with two victories from those three games, his claims on the job will be even stronger, but the way things are going, he might win them all.
“I don’t think we could be in a better frame of mind in confidence, so we’re looking forward to the next few games coming up and especially this game against PSG,” Solskjaer said. “We have to look to PSG and make sure we go through this one and then take the next challenge as it comes.
“I’ve loved every single minute of it since I walked in here on the first day. We had a big challenge ahead of us, we were far behind in the league and confidence was low after the defeat against Liverpool, but the players have responded fantastically.”
They have responded to Solskjaer, which is why the question about what happens next will keep coming.