Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s honeymoon period is well and truly over. The man brought in to clean up Jose Mourinho’s mess enjoyed an impressive run of six straight wins as interim manager before overseeing a magical night in Paris when United overturned a 2-0 Champions League deficit to beat the runaway French leader on their home patch.
But now it’s down to business. Rightly awarded the full-time job – not just for a run of impressive results but for the way he has injected confidence into the dressing room and got the best out of players such as Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford – Solskjaer’s sights are on closing the gap between the Red Devils and their chief rivals.
An impressive managerial start, but questions persist
Solskjaer’s reign as United manager started in style. The team scored 14 goals in his first four games in charge and the Norwegian proved he was more than just a grand motivator with a tactically astute display to beat Spurs away from home followed by FA Cup wins at Arsenal and Chelsea.
After three months in charge, United had emerged as the bookmakers’ favourite to join Spurs in the top four having languished 11 points behind the Londoners before the Norwegian took charge. The club’s transformative form was described by the BBC as Solskjaer giving “a disaffected squad unity of purpose once more”.
Since then, however, the manager and fans have had a stark reminder that this United team is not ready to compete for the league title. Arsenal’s impressive form – including a long winning run at home that featured victory against the Red Devils in March – coupled with United’s stuttering league and cup performance has seen the Old Trafford club’s chances of the top four dissipate.
Owen Hargreaves believes his former team will still get the Champions League place they desire, telling the Daily Star that “United will sneak in” alongside Spurs as Arsenal and Chelsea miss out. The bookmakers, on the other hand, aren’t so confident. Betway has Chelsea to join Spurs with Arsenal and United fighting for a Europa League place instead. Indeed, recent results have revealed the size of the task facing United’s new permanent manager.
What players has Solskjaer got his eyes on?
Part of the answer lies in what sort of squad Solskjaer will have available after the dust settles on United’s contract-hunting players. There are questions about Paul Pogba’s future, Ander Herrera looks set to leave for Paris St. Germain, and Juan Mata could also join them out the door.
Crucially, however, United still need address areas of the pitch that continue to hamper them. Victor Lindelof’s improvement has made him a starting centre-back but the club are still actively searching for a top-class centre-half to join him and we know the Norwegian is a long-time admirer of Napoli enforcer Kalidou Koulibaly.
Regarded as one of the best defenders in Europe, the Red Devils only need to look across to the west coast to see how a leader at the back can transform a club’s fortunes (yes, I’m talking about Virgil van Dijk at Liverpool). He won’t come cheap, of course.
Further concerns hover over United’s right-back with Diogo Dalot pencilled in to be Ashley Young’s long-term replacement (who in turn has been covering for the injured Antonio Valencia). That said, Solksjaer would love to bring in a quality, ready-made player for that position and Crystal Palace’s dynamic Aaron Wan-Bissakais a frontrunner. At 21, United would have two young right-backs with genuine potential, taking away any concern about that position for a few years.
Upfront, the Red Devils have most bases covered but like Mourinho before him, the new manager would like to add a winger who can hug the right touchline. That’s why there are growing rumours about the possibility of Borussia Dortmund’s 18-year-old Englishman Jadon Sancho coming to Old Trafford. In fact, The Mirror claims Ed Woodward is ready to smash the club record to sign him.
Solskjaer has also set his sights on Lyon’s Tanguy Ndombele. Likened to Michael Essien as a box-to-box central midfielder, he’s one of the most in-demand players in Europe and would provide an upgrade on Nemanja Matic who is now the wrong side of 30.
If Herrera leaves, expect United to eye two midfielders with Bruno Fernandes and Adrien Rabiot decent options. Declan Rice’s name has also been mentioned. He’d be a more expensive choice but his versatility to play in midfield or defence would make him an attractive proposition.
An exciting summer ahead
Regardless of what might happen between now and the end of the season, there’s no denying it’s going to be an exciting off-season. Solskjaer has injected renewed confidence in the club and the summer will give him the chance to assess what he has got, what he hasn’t got, and what he needs.