The weekend just gone marked Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s second anniversary at the club. The “Baby-faced assassin” came to United’s rescue when he was appointed as interim manager after Jose Mourinho’s dismissal on the 19th of December 2018. The club was in chaos and disarray from top to bottom after Jose Mourinho’s disastrous third season which resulted in him being sacked by Ed Woodward following a heavy 3-1 defeat away to Liverpool at Anfield.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was appointed as an interim manager by Ed Woodward and the Glazers as a stopgap until the end of the season. The board never really saw the club legend as a real contender to be in the running for the next permanent managers’ job and expected him to return to Molde FK at the end of the season.
The pinnacle of Solskjaer’s modest managerial career up to that point had been winning back-to-back Tippleligaen titles with Molde FK seven years earlier. His managerial reputation took a massive hit with his ill-fated term in charge of Cardiff City resulting in their relegation from the Premier League in 2014. The decision to bring back Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as interim manager to replace Jose Mourinho alongside club favourite Mike Phelan as assistant coach was highly questionable and seen by most people as a stopgap until the end of the season. However, it could prove to be one of the only positive appointments by under fire executive-vice chairman Ed Woodward during his disastrous seven years in charge of Manchester United. Solskjaer knows Manchester United inside out, while his optimistic and charming character offered a breath of fresh air after the sullen Jose Mourinho.
Solskjaer’s first task as United manager was to pick up the pieces left behind by Mourinho prior to his sacking. Mourinho was on borrowed time at United after his disruptive behaviour and comments targeting the board during the USA pre-season tour in the summer of 2018. The Special One caused problems with his negative attitude towards players, lambasting the board publicly for failing to acquire his transfer targets, publicly criticising key players in the press, etc.
Mourinho created a toxic environment within the club which also saw one of his disciples Rui Faria choosing to leave the club after the 2017/18 season ended. His public lambasting of players such as Luke Shaw, Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial were extremely damaging to the players confidence and squad morale as the majority of the players felt these comments should not be made publicly. The style of football under Mourinho was pragmatic and not the so-called “United Way” which was a problem for the majority of fans who were used to attacking football under Sir Alex Ferguson. Although, Mourinho’s time at United in terms of trophies won can be viewed as successful in reality he caused huge disruption at the club. The mess at the club left behind by Mourinho is still evident and is Solskjaer’s responsibility to sort out.
The baby-faced assassin transformed Manchester United almost overnight. He was responsible for revitalising the dressing room, establishing a more adventurous brand of football more like the United Way, formed a close bond with key players and encouraged players alienated under Mourinho that they would have a chance to prove themselves once again at the club. Solskjaer was also very intelligent and began introducing the academy’s most talented youngsters to the first teams with the likes of Brandon Williams and Mason Greenwood becoming key squad players. The toxic atmosphere around the club that was evident during Mourinho’s final few months in charge suddenly lifted and the air of paranoia, suspicion and internal strife subsided.
The culture was rebooted under Solskjaer immediately and he started to revert back to the way the club was run during Sir Alex Ferguson’s day. United’s form dramatically improved after the appointment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as interim manager with United winning eight matches in a row. Solskjaer’s side were beginning to find consistency winning 14 out of 19 matches in all competitions. His only defeat in his first 17 matches in charge was against Paris Saint-Germain the Champions League last 16, before a depleted Manchester United made Champions League history with a dramatic comeback in the second leg to knock out the Parisians. Every Manchester United fan, pundit and probably Ferguson was calling for the club legend to be given the job on a permanent basis after his unbelievable three months at the club.
However, United and Solskjaer were brought back down to earth with defeats against Arsenal and Wolves in the Premier League and FA Cup respectively. Ed Woodward decided it was be the right time to appoint Solskjaer as permanent manager of Manchester United on a three year contact until 2022. Although, the majority of fans thought it would have been smarter for Ed Woodward and the United board to wait until the end of the season and make a decision then.
Once appointed as manager on a permanent basis the uplift from having “Ole at the wheel” turned into the wheels falling off. Solskjaer’s United seem to be paying the price for a change of style of playing mid through the season with his emphasis on a more energetic pressing style. The players were not prepared for the physicality and fitness levels required for Solskjaer’s style of play and the performances soon reflected that. However, after the amazing comeback win away in Paris against PSG, United only won just two of their final nine Premier League games.
There were some embarrassing performances especially a defeat on the final day against Solskjaer’s former club Cardiff City to end the season. However, seemingly for the first time since Ferguson retired in 2013 the club appeared to finally be in a positive position. The club went into the summer of 2019 with a real strategy in place and a long-term vision which was a stark contrast to the previous disastrous six years under Ed Woodward. There were a number of issues previous managers had to deal with in the transfer market such as the erratic transfer policy under Woodward’s guidance, over paying for players who did not want to join the club, scatter gun transfer approach. Solskjaer identified his transfer targets straight away and made his expectations clear to Woodward and the board about what he required to fix the squad he inherited from Mourinho. Suddenly, Woodward was briefing the press about Solskjaer wanting to build a new squad, with younger players, preferably domestic who could develop and become top players for the club for years to come. United would no longer pursue the idea of signing superstars such as Gareth Bale mainly because of the huge mistake signing Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal and the implications that had for the club financially. This is where Solskjaer deserves huge credit for being ruthless and changing the erratic transfer policy which has been an embarrassment to United ever since Ferguson’s retirement in 2013. He also identified the need to look into each potential player’s character and personality to ensure they are the right fit for Manchester United and contribute to the cultural reboot he is creating within the squad.
Solskjaer has been responsible for a significant squad overhaul since his permanent appointment as manager in March 2019. United’s squad has undergone a considerable transformation, significantly lowering the average age of the squad with the integration of academy graduates and repositioning for long term realistic aims for the club. Solskjaer was the man responsible for getting rid of the three previous manager’s expensive and overpaid flops who did not fit into his cultural reboot and system of playing for United going forward. The Norwegian is responsible for getting rid of key players like Ander Herrera, Antonio Valencia, Chris Smalling whilst letting trouble makers Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez leave the club. Solskjaer was ruthless with players who he did not see fitting into his system and identified players who needed to leave the club for the squad to continue to develop and progress. Andreas Pereira has joined Lazio on loan for this season while Phil Jones, Sergio Romero, Jesse Lingard and Marcos Rojo are deemed surplus to requirements. These are four players United will try move on in the next transfer window which will allow Solskjaer to promote more talented players from the conveyor belt of talent from the infamous clubs academy.
Solskjaer’s recruitment at United has been exceptional with the club bringing in Daniel James, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Harry Maguire, Bruno Fernandes, Donny van de Beek, Alex Telles, Facundo Pellistri and the soon arriving Adam Diallo. Whilst signing free agent Edison Cavani has proven to be a master stroke with the Uruguayan excelling during his first few months at the club and passing his knowledge on to young talents like Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood. The United boss deserves huge credit for the significant squad overhaul while replacing key experienced players with hungry cheaper players who are buying into his new Manchester United. The squad rebuild is not complete yet and United were left embarrassed in the summer transfer window with them failing to land Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund. Solskjaer identified the young English starlet as his key target but Borussia Dortmund’s £120m transfer fee remained unrealistic in a market that was changed completely due to the COVID-19 financial challenges and implications for all clubs around the world. Woodward’s reluctance to overspend in the summer transfer window caused huge controversy but in terms of how Manchester United are trying to conduct transfer business going forward it may prove to be a smart move.
The players Solskjaer and Mancheser United have signed since adopting a new philosophy and transfer policy have been excellent additions to the squad. However, the club’s efficiency in the transfer window under Ed Woodward’s guidance has been disastrous but in recent windows transfer business has been smart for once. Solskjaer has to be given the necessary tools for the job to success and unless Woodward and the Glazers financially do that the club legend could be the fourth managerial casualty since Ferguson retired. This is where questions need to be asked of executive vice chairman Woodward and his university friend chief negotiator Matt Judge whom are responsible for the shortcomings especially in the transfer market.
Although the squad rebuild is not complete the results are still erratic under Solskjaer after two years in charge. This has led to serious questions being asked about his suitability as manager and the potential of United achieving success under his guidance long term. Since the squad rebuild is not complete and United still lack key players in a number of positions, the style of play has been different from game to game. This season Solskjaer has implemented different tactical systems depending on games and opponent manager’s tactical tendencies. Manchester United’s away form under the Norwegian has been outstanding with United winning 10 consecutive matches in the Premier League setting a new club record this season. This has been evident under Solskjaer with United excelling when playing on the counter attacking against teams that have more possession. However, in some games sloppy mistakes and a lack of understanding from the players deployed in different tactical systems has led to major setbacks. The assumption is that United will gain more consistency once the recruitment side of things is complete when Solskjaer has all the players he needs to build a team to challenge for trophies.
Solksjaer’s two years as manager of United,can be described as stratospheric highs and worrying lows.
At times, Solskjaer’s Red Devils have played the best football United fans have seen since the days of Ferguson. It cannot be a coincidence that five out of the club’s biggest wins of the last seven years have all come during Solskjaer’s reign as manager. The Norwegian has also showed his tendency for results in big games with victories over Manchester City and Chelsea home and away last season, as well as being the first team to stop Liverpool winning at Anfield. Solskjaer’s first full season as permanent Manchester United manager resulted in United finishing third in the Premier League which is their second highest league position post-Ferguson era. The Norwegian also guided United to three semi-finals in all three cup competitions. The progress is evident under Solskjaer yet the ability to achieve important results in key matches continues to elude the United manager. Solskjaer and United coaching staff will be delighted with his team’s response to being knocked out of Europe with their Premier League form continuing to improve. Manchester United are now the in-form league in the Premier League and are unbeaten in their last seven fixtures winning six and drawing one. The 6-2 demolition of Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United today saw the Red Devils climb up to third in the table trailing leaders Liverpool by five points with a game in hand. Solskjaer and his United side are beginning to click at the right time heading into a key period which will likely decide if they are challenging for a title in the new year. Although, it does not seem like it at times but United are in a much better position now than two years ago when Solskjaer first walked through the door as interim manager.
It is not perfect and whether he is the right man to deliver success in the long term is still questionable. However, if the club is to make a change on the front, it would have to be a continuation of the work Solskjaer and his coaching staff has started at Manchester United in the last two years.
“Ole’s at the wheel” and he might be driving us to success!