The challenge of taking on Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley at the weekend will be the toughest test of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s managerial credentials to date.
The quality of opposition has played an important role in the former striker claiming five wins from his opening five games, but in equal measure, he has changed the mood around Old Trafford with optimism and belief that appeared to be long lost under predecessor Jose Mourinho.
There is irony in the fact that Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino remains a leading candidate should the Manchester United board decide to look beyond Solskjaer for a permanent boss in the summer, but the popular Norwegian is currently in position, and will not let go without a fight.
And Solskjaer has five crucial months remaining to prove to his employers that he has the ability to lead the club forward and into an overdue era of success.
In the coming five months there are five elements that will boost is credibility with those tasked in making one of the biggest decisions in the club’s recent history, and it starts with a competition he knows only too well.
#1 – Restore the values of Manchester United
While Solskjaer will need to implement his own identity on the team in order to make a strong enough impression to be considered a viable candidate for the permanent job, there are core values at Old Trafford that must be restored if the club are to return to a period of sustained success.
Solskjaer has made an immediate impact in re-establishing the attacking virtues that defined their great teams of the past, but there is much more to do.
Both Busby and Ferguson showed faith and belief in youth as they created teams in their own image that would achieve respective European success.
It is a trait that has defined Manchester United throughout history, and Solskjaer has already taken tentative steps towards this with the inclusion of Tahith Chong and James Garner against Reading in the FA Cup last weekend.
In addition, local fan favourite Marcus Rashford has already benefited from the goal-scoring experience of his new manager and appears a far more composed figure in front of goal having worked with Solskjaer, if only for a brief time.
Bringing the best out of Rashford will improve Solskjaer’s growing reputation with the Manchester United faithful, and he could prove to be a catalyst in taking the club back into the top four this season.
Finally, it is the fans who must be inspired, and it is the combination of homegrown youngsters embracing an attacking philosophy that will gain Solskjaer unwavering support in the long-term.
Managerial careers can be built and destroyed by the support they receive. Solskjaer has made a positive start, and his appreciation of Manchester United’s core identity offers him a unique edge in the recruitment process that is set to follow in the summer months.
#2 – Don’t be Jose Mourinho
Probably the easiest point in the five-point plan, Solskjaer must ensure that he is the opposite to his predecessor in every aspect of his professional life.
Mourinho cut a negative figure during his extended time at Old Trafford, and his attitude reflected in the performances and approach of his team.
A defensive manager inspired only by the desire to destroy, Mourinho stifled and prevented his creative players from expressing themselves, and the outcome eventually resulted in his departure.
Mourinho made Manchester United a vehicle for his own agenda. It was a role he played well at Inter Milan, but less successfully at Real Madrid, and it was during his time at the Santiago Bernabeu that the chinks in his managerial armour become so patently clear.
His appointment at Manchester United in the summer of 2016 showed a lack of due diligence from the board, and while he was seen as the only viable challenge to take on Pep Guardiola at their city rivals, it distracted from their increasing demise.
From his very first press conference on his return to Old Trafford, Solskjaer exposed just what the club had been allowed to become under Mourinho.
Rather than speak about himself, he spoke about the club, and the importance of restoring the values that had been lost. It was about the freedom of players to express themselves in an attacking approach to the game, regardless of the opposition.
It reflected a club of Manchester United’s true status, and not the empty shell that Mourinho had created in his own image.
#3 – Discover a positive identity
Managing a club like Manchester United requires more than most other jobs in the world game.
The status of the club requires a figurehead with a unique identity, and Solskjaer must show that he is more than just a successful caretaker if he is to claim the job on a permanent basis.
The January transfer window offers Solskjaer an early opportunity to implement his own identity onto the team and the club, and if he can make at least one high-profile addition a success, he will have the platform to start building a foundation for the team in his own image before the end of the season.
He will need the support of the board to be able to do so, but his initial contribution has earned him trust with the hierarchy.
Of course, management is still relatively new to Solskjaer, and while he has racked up experience at Molde, he remains a novice at the very highest level.
He is still forming his own footballing identity and philosophy, and there is no doubt that he has needed to change his approach based on the calibre of players that he now has at his disposal.
The challenge is to make this team his team in a short space of time, and with it show he has the strength of character required to lead the club into a new era.
#4 – Bring the best out of Paul Pogba
A headline signing in the summer of 2016, Paul Pogba is one of a number of stars to under-achieve.
His return to Old Trafford was heralded as the start of a new chapter as the club continued to recover from the retirement of Ferguson, but sporadic displays of brilliance have been clouded by inconsistency on the big occasions of which he was expected to thrive.
Pogba was a significant and reactionary signing by the Manchester United board, and if Solskjaer can bring the best out of the French star, it will save the public relations blushes of those who sanctioned what was a massive statement of intent.
The benefits of Pogba playing at his maximum extend both on and off the field, with the value of positive performance as commercially crucial as the obvious sporting benefits.
A World Cup winner in the summer, Pogba was a player reborn in the colours of the French national team, and it is that presence that Solskjaer must now rediscover in his inherited talisman.
Pogba has already proven that his ability is far more than just potential, and his performances on the biggest stage of all confirm that he can be motivated to produce for his club as well as his country.
#5 – UEFA Champions League success
It was 20 years ago that Solskjaer came off the bench at the Camp Nou to score his injury-time winner against Bayern Munich in the 1999 final.
It was the historic goal that defined his playing career, and established his name in Manchester United and Champions League folklore forever.Advertisement
It is the competition that headlines the achievements of Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson, and it could yet be the competition that cements Solskjaer into the job that he craves.
The challenge of Paris Saint-Germain will be difficult, but not insurmountable. Their domestic complacency in Ligue 1 will play into the hands of a rejuvenated Manchester United, and there is every reason to believe they can progress to the next stage.
Beating the best is a pre-requisite for European success, but Solskjer and United have a personal history of upsetting the odds on the continent.
But even if lifting the trophy proves too much for Solskjaer this time around, domestic success could prove to be just as valuable in boosting his chances of a permanent appointment.
Qualifying for the competition through the UEFA Europa League in 2017 earned Mourinho kudos with his increasingly desperate employers, but Solskjaer will need to mirror last season and disrupt the top four of the English Premier League if he is to achieve the same feat.