Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was on the verge of becoming Cardiff City’s new manager on Wednesday night, despite the advice of his mentor, Sir Alex Ferguson.
Solskjaer watched Cardiff’s 2-0 defeat at Arsenal from the directors’ box, sitting between Cardiff’s controversial owner, Vincent Tan, and chairman Mehmet Dalman. The 40-year-old Norwegian former Manchester United player is due to be announced today as the replacement for Malky Mackay, dismissed by Tan last month.
The decision to take the Cardiff job goes against specific advice Solskjaer received last week from Ferguson, who managed him throughout his 11-year United career before working with him during his two and a half years as reserve team manager at Old Trafford. Ferguson is said to have told Solskjaer to choose the right chairman to work under.
Tan is unpopular with Cardiff fans, for changing the club’s colours from blue to red and then his public undermining and eventual dismissal of Mackay, who won Cardiff’s promotion into the Premier League last year.
Solskjaer flew into London on Tan’s private jet yesterday morning and arrived at the Emirates with the club’s owner in a Rolls-Royce. He met Arsène Wenger before the game but, according to Cardiff’s caretaker manager David Kerslake, did not go into the dressing room to speak to the players. “Cardiff played like they knew he was in the stands,” Wenger said afterwards.
Solskjaer was very successful with Molde during his three years there, winning the Norwegian Premier League with them twice, the first titles in the club’s history, as well as the Norwegian Cup.
In the summer of 2012, he spoke to Aston Villa about their managerial vacancy after the departure of Alex McLeish; that job went to Paul Lambert instead.
“He has already an experience as a manager in Norway,” said Wenger. “So he has learned his job. He was an intelligent player and an intelligent boy as well and that will help him to be successful. He will do well.”
On the pitch, Arsenal looked to have slipped up with two minutes left, and the score still 0-0. That result would have seen them fall behind Manchester City in the table and leave them level with Chelsea. It would have felt like a betrayal of those hard-fought away wins at West Ham and Newcastle and a sign that Arsenal did not have the squad depth of their title rivals.
It had certainly not been an inspiring performance from Arsenal, as, in their fourth game in 10 days, without their best striker and two best midfielders, they struggled to break down a typically resolute Cardiff side. But then, in the penultimate minute of normal time, Nacho Monreal swung over a cross from the left. Bacary Sagna headed it at the far post, David Marshall saved well only for Nicklas Bendtner, on as a substitute for Lukas Podolski, to lash the ball into the net.
The celebrations were raucous, as 88 minutes of pressure and tension were relieved, and only once all his team-mates peeled away from Bendtner did it become clear that he had twisted his ankle in the process of scoring the goal, colliding with Marshall. This was Bendtner’s most important intervention in an Arsenal shirt since April 2010 – an injury-time winner at home against Wolves – but now he will be out for a few weeks.
“I am very sad for us but for him as well,” said Wenger, who has kept more faith in Bendtner than most. “I never give up on people, because you always have to give them credit. I told him already today that he is back to the level I want him to be, and if he can continue to develop like that, he can continue in the team.” Bendtner is out of contract in the summer but Wenger said that he was still focused on Arsenal.
After the Dane’s goal, the pressure was off and Arsenal scored a second in added time. Tomas Rosicky, who was impressive after coming on, passed forward to Jack Wilshere, who played a delightful flick through for Theo Walcott to chip Marshall.
There was relief at the end, but also a sense that this was a more impressive win than it first looked. As Wenger acknowledged after the match, winning contributions from the bench, especially from fringe players, characterise successful teams.
“We have a good togetherness in the side, the players come on with the right attitude and that makes the difference,” Wenger said. “You know that if you do not have that in the championship [race], then you have no chance to do it. We have that in the squad, we have to take care of that spirit and show it in every game.”
It did not look, during the first half, that Arsenal had those resources within them. Their hectic festive schedule – exacerbated by playing Chelsea on Monday 23 December rather than the 21st or 22nd – had deprived them yesterday of Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud.
Podolski was chosen ahead of Bendtner, but looked like a man who had not started up front all season. Wenger admitting afterwards that he “lacked sharpness”. With no real presence in the box, and lack of imagination from midfield, Arsenal struggled to create much of any note. “We had a slow start,” said Wenger, “as can happen sometimes when you play so many games.”
This was Kerslake’s last game in temporary charge of Cardiff, and he said he was “immensely proud” of his team’s performance, and understandably so. Steven Caulker and Ben Turner were excellent at centre-back, Kerslake saying afterwards that Caulker “can go on and be absolutely anything”. Not many 22-year-olds captain and organise top-flight teams like Caulker does, and he will be a rock on which Solskjaer builds his Cardiff team.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1) Szczesny 6; Sagna 7, Mertesacker 6, Koscielny 6, Monreal 7; Flamini 5 (Rosicky, 64, 7), Arteta 6; Walcott 6, Wilshere 7, Cazorla 6; Podolski 4 (Bendtner, 64, 7)
Cardiff (4-4-1-1) Marshall 7; McNaughton, 6, Caulker 7, Taylor 7, John 6; Noone 7, Medel 6 (Cowie 67, 6), Whittingham 6, Kim 6; Mutch 7 (Cowie, 67, 5); Campbell 6 (Maynard 79)
Man of the match: Wilshere
Match Rating: 5/10