Very few heard of the name Ole Gunnar Solskjaer when he signed for Manchester United from Molde back in 1996, and many were soon to be shocked at the impact the Norwegian striker had at Old Trafford. His ability to score goal after goal, primarily from the substitution bench, meant fans were spoilt for choice during these times. 13 years later however, the story is completely different.
In the midst of the 2018/19 season, United had hit rock bottom. Jose Mourinho was dismissed from his position and worrying times seemed to loom over the Theatre of Dreams. Solskjaer was sent in by Woodward to try and restore the clubs’ identity.
His managerial start was sensational; a run of 14 wins from 19 matches, which, at the time, helped propel United back into contention for a top-four finish and into the Champions League quarter-finals, coupled with his attempts to restore the clubs’ DNA, persuaded the board that he was the right man to take them forward. Many realise though, that after the official confirmation, United switched off.
The club remained 32 points adrift of rivals, Manchester City, and finished 6th in the league, a run which was viewed so badly, that the manager conceded it would be “miraculous” if the team were challenging for the title next season. Yet although most of the United fanbase realise that a title challenge may be a few years away, Solskjaer’s transfer targets depict a side he wants to create to ‘climb that mountain’.
It is rumoured that as many as five signings could come in at Old Trafford this summer, with the club already confirming the signing of young prospects Daniel James Aaron Wan-Bissaka. The early indications are that Solskjaer is targeting young and exciting prospects that want to develop their game to the next level. Moreover though, it may not be clear to the naked eye, but the Manchester United manager is attempting to emulate the spinal cord of the great teams’ he was part of during the late 1990’s and modernise it into a fast and exhilarating young team, full of flair and energy.
It can be argued that United, for the first time since the 1990’s of Irwin and Neville, now have an established set of full-backs that can occupy their position for years to come. What’s even more beneficial, is that all compliment each other. Diogo Dalot has the opportunity to help improve Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw’s offensive gameplay, whilst the latter can help Dalot adjust his game to become more defensive-minded, improving him as a player.
Furthermore, it can be highlighted that United are arguably one centre-half away from having a balanced defence, something that hasn’t been seen since the likes of Ferdinand and Vidic were at the heart of the team. An experienced addition, like Kalidou Koulibaly, or a cheaper alternative, for example Toby Alderweireld, would compliment Victor Lindelof and the back four would look, on paper for the first time in ages, solid and efficient. Even if United went down the route of signing a young and exciting talent, for example Ruben Dias, here would be a back four that would cement themselves into the starting line-up and gradually develop an understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
Moving into midfield, it is clear that at the moment, additions are needed. A mixture of flair, determination and youth are the things needed to add the balance United have been missing since the retirement’s of Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick. It is of no surprise then, that Bruno Fernandes and Sean Longstaff have been consistently linked.
Fernandes would add extra creativity to the midfield the club so desperately need, last season’s figures of 32 goals and 18 assists in 53 appearances being a major indication of what he brings to the team. Coupled with Paul Pogba, if he stays, United have the potential to be a team full of opportunities, an ingredient the club has missed since the end of 2013.
It is fair to say then, that with two world class additions, a defensive minded player is also required. Much scrutiny and frustration has come with United’s link to Longstaff, but the potential is there to take his game to the next level and the statistics show why Solskjaer wants him.
In his first 5 appearances, he covered the most ground out of any player, which included fixtures against Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea; he has a 76% tackle success rate for a defensive midfielder; his ability to ping the ball across the pitch, on average 3.3 long balls per game, would provide a platform for United’s front three to break away with pace. 2 goals and 0.9 shots per game in just 8 starting appearances is decent returning for a defensive midfielder. Even Pep Guardiola, arguably the best manager in the Premier League, claimed his team “could not deal with Newcastle’s holding midfield players” upon reflecting on their loss to them; high praise considering the midfielders City possess. As reported by Simon Stone, United are pursuing the player, and at £25 million, he could prove to be low risk with high reward.
It is clear to see what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is trying to do to evolve this Manchester United team into a future title winning side. Although the question remains as to what he will do in the rest of the transfer window, if he can get the right balance in the team with the right philosophy, what we could see is a team worthy enough of challenging for the top four this season, and with added firepower up front in the next stages of recruitment, a title challenging side in the next two to three years.