A PE Teacher, the wrong man at the wrong time, a rushed job based on one result, a nostalgia stint. These are just some of the barbs that have been aimed at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer since he was appointed United manager on a permanent basis a little over two years ago.
If we cast our minds back around 12 months things look very bleak.
On January 3rd United had 36 points from 21 games, sitting 16 points behind eventual champions Liverpool (the dates are out of synch due to COVID) whilst heading into matchday 19 (the next round this season is matchday 18) United had 25 points, a whole 24 points behind having played one game more.
Fast Forward to January 4 and after Liverpool suffered defeat at Southampton United found themselves behind the defending champions, only this time it’s United that have played one game fewer, if you had gone to a bookmaker’s 12 months ago and bet on United being behind Liverpool only on goal difference you would have gotten very good odds. Yet despite all this in many circles the credit for this is given to a great many things, none of which have been Solskjaer.
Of course one main factor has been the struggles of Liverpool this season (mainly in drawing games) and Manchester City in the last two seasons. Yet in those seasons Liverpool and Manchester City have lost just 21 from a possible 186 games, with just under half of that being City’s nine defeats last season. So those extra struggles have opened up an opportunity, but that opportunity still needs to be capitalised on and United have done it, at least so far and it’s about time Solskjaer got the credit he deserves for it.
There’s no getting away from the fact that the signing of Bruno Fernandes has had a massive impact. Signed on deadline day last January the Portuguese has played 30 times in the Premier League since signing , scoring 19 goals and laying on a further 14. Since then Fernandes has been on the losing side in a Premier League match just three times, all this season. Critics of the United boss will use this signing as a slight on Solskjaer, that without it, United would still be struggling. But, isn’t that just the point? I have been critical of Oliver Holt in previous pieces but Mr. Holt was spot on in the Mail on Sunday. Would Liverpool have become European and English champions had they not signed Virgil van Dijk and Allison Beccker? It’s almost certain they wouldn’t have done, but they did and that’s precisely why they did, to help them move to the next level, to improve. That’s the effect Fernandes has had on United, he’s made them better. Is it not part of the manager’s job to identify and sign players to improve the team and get the best out of them? That’s exactly what Solskjaer has done, the Fernandes signing should be a credit to Solskjaer, not used as a stick to beat him with.
But it goes beyond the signing of Fernandes. One criticism aimed at the United boss was that he doesn’t improve players like Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola do. Well, in his first full season both Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford had their most productive seasons, Fred went from a £50m misfit to one of the most important players in the team. Meanwhile, thanks to the signing of Alex Telles, Luke Shaw is playing the best football of his United career. Solskjaer has helped him develop and given him competition to keep him on his toes. He’s brought in Edinson Cavani who, despite the naysayers has proved an inspired signing helping the club pick up much needed points and working with the likes of Rashford, Martial and Greenwood to help their development.
The ‘PE teacher’ also deserves credit for his commitment to putting the club’s needs above his own (unlike his predecessor) and for his man management skills. Jose Mourinho was known for ‘throwing players under the bus’ and being openly critical. Solskjaer has praised and defended his players in public and kept the discipline and criticism for behind the closed doors of the training ground. Then there was his handling of the Paul Pogba crisis. On the eve of one of the biggest games of the club’s season his agent decides to say that Pogba wishes to leave. Again, the manager refused to condemn Pogba in public but did drop him to the bench for a couple of games, as fans called fir his head on a spit, before bringing him back for the trip to Sheffield United where Pogba turned in one his finest ever performances for the club. Whilst I am on this point, it is this writer’s opinion that Solskjaer was aware of Pogba’s desire to leave before this interview and that is a key reason behind the signing of Donny van de Beek, brought in now to avoid a price hike after Pogba’s departure and to give him time to settle in, which is why I am currently less concerned than some others over his playing time. Right now Van de Beek isn’t in our best midfield. Next season he probably is.
Another key factor has been the turnaround in the mentality of the team. For a couple of years I often criticised the team for mental weakness. I kept a track of the number of times when, after conceding first, United would concede a second within five minutes. During the van Gaal and Mourinho eras (and including Solskjaer’s arrival up until his first full season) this number ran into double digits. Since the beginning of the 2019/20 season however, this has occurred just once in the Premier League, the three-three draw away at Sheffield United. In the team that day was Phil Jones, who played for the only time in this period in that game. This is why Solskjaer deserves credit here. United recently went on a run of winning seven consecutive away games after conceding first. That points to a shift in the mentality of the players to not lose their heads after conceding but to settle down and start again. It points to work done on the training ground in this area, but also a drive to shift players like Jones, who lack this trait. We have the likes of Lukaku, Sanchez and Smalling all leave with the likes of Rojo, Jones, Lingard and Perreira all seemingly now surplus to requirements. Solskjaer has worked hard on this, he deserves credit.
I want to finish with this. A recent piece in The Athletic showed an interesting tidbit: “In all competitions United had six games in 16 days form the trip to Sheffield United on December 17- the highest turnover in the Premier League- and Solskjaer made on average 6.2 changes per game while managing to win five and draw the other at Leicester.”
That’s more than a game every three days and United won all but one. That shows excellent squad management to make best use of all his resources to successfully manage a notoriously tricky period, there’s no one to credit that too except Solskjaer.
So maybe it’s time to stop the barbs, the jokes and the calls for the latest shiny new managerial toy on the shelf and and instead start giving the man currently in the job the credit he deserves.