“Can you remember, remember my name?
As I flow through your life
A thousand oceans I have flown
And cold spirits of ice
All my life
I am the echo of your past”
– Deep Purple – Perfect Strangers
Ole Gunnar Solskjær is no longer the manager of Manchester United. For some that might be great news and for others that might generate a bit of sadness, but one thing is sure: there is an element of relief.
Relief because these three years of the Norwegian’s tenure have been emotionally and mentally draining, to the point that you would think even Solskjær himself is going to relish the opportunity of having a rest after such a gruelling job.
The United legend took over at a time where the club was a monumental mess at every single level and the previous manager, Jose Mourinho, only added fuel to the fire through several decisions. Misguided signings, a bloated wage structure, a toxic dressing room, an academy bereft of burgeoning talent, a massively uneven squad and a playing style that was so dire that Mourinho’s three trophies mattered very little to the United faithful (even though some of the Portuguese’s acolytes and controversy lovers want to rewrite history in that regard).
It was a miserable time where there was no absolutely nothing to be positive or excited about, which is why most top level manager were reluctant on taking the job when Mourinho was sacked in late 2018.
Solskjær took over as the interim manager and all United fans know the story: the team went on a great run, the exciting football came back, said run reached its climax in Paris in a phenomenal comeback against PSG in the Champions League and the team then fell apart due to injuries and the players being ran into the ground. Ole got the job as permanent manager after Paris and went on to two through whole seasons with lots of highs and lows and squad-building that, regardless of how you want to slice, is going to prove monumental for the future manager.
Unlike his predecessors, the Norwegian might not have a trophy to boast during his United tenure, but he has built something a lot more lasting than the likes of David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Mourinho, which is developing a squad that has genuine quality to challenge despite a couple of shortcomings (more on that later), helping to inject the academy with lots of promising young players (although, to be fair, he was certainly helped by his former teammate, Nicky Butt, in that regard) and helping in the development and improvement of a lot of players that are now key in the current United structure.
All of this while being massively undermined by rival fans, the media and a big section of United supporters, including popular YouTube channels and things of a similar ilk. And while criticism is certainly warranted in football and in any other profession because it’s a way to grow and improve, there is a big difference in healthy criticism and what Solskjær has gone through.
Attacks to his personality, to the way he behaved in the touchline, the fact he didn’t scream to the players in public, the fact he didn’t throw anybody under the bus in press conferences (apparently “a sign of weakness” and “lack of leadership”) or trying to catch frames of him smiling after a defeat to suggest he didn’t care about the game.
Things that have nothing to do with football and that are extremely superficial when you consider that there are multiple managers that are similar to Ole in personality and that they have gone to be very successful. Even The Telegraph’s Alan Tyers was trying to punch down at Solskjær after his emotional final interview as the United manager when he was on the verge of tears. I get that they do and say these things to get clicks, reactions and so on, but it reached a point where you can’t help but think that this was personal as other managers were borderline media darlings, such as Frank Lampard or Mikel Arteta, and Solskjær was treated like public enemy number one, which undoubtedly influenced a lot of people’s opinion on his tenure.
And this is not me pretending that the Norwegian’s tenure was perfect. Not by a long shot. If it was, he would still be the United manager. But this is where the part of actual criticism comes in and where we need to understand that Ole, while excellent in a lot of different aspects during his tenure, ended up getting sacked by some key decisions that were his and therefore he had to assume the responsibility.
Even entering this season, the need for a central midfielder was crucial and Ole never really made that happen, which, in a way, ended up costing his job. He wanted Declan Rice and the West Ham man being impossible to get at the moment meant that the Norwegian preferred not signing anybody if he couldn’t get his first choice, which is a bit understandable, but the cost was much greater than the gain at the end of the day. His over-reliance on Fred and Scott McTominay in the double pivot, often dubbed McFred, was a clear reflection of Solskjær’s worst vices as a manager: finding something that worked (PSG and majority of the 2019/20 season) and running it into the ground until there was no choice but to revamp the formation and system again. Relying on the Brazilian and the Scotsman, who are good enough just as squad players, to be his central midfielders was a massively erroneous decision and it showed when the team needed more quality in that position. An ageing Nemanja Matic certainly didn’t help the cause either.
Of course, his willingness to compromise and pander to Paul Pogba might be as damaging as any other poor decision of Ole’s at the club and I would even go as far as saying that it was the worst he made as manager of Manchester United. When he arrived as interim manager, Pogba started out quite well and was in arguably his finest form as a United player, but as history has shown us throughout the years, the Frenchman is a player of runs, not seasons.
Pogba, as he has proven during Solskjær’s time at the club, is a player that can play well for a month, play awfully for two, get injured for three and make controversies through his agent, his contract or whatever stupid thing he does during the rest of the year. And while he has the talent to be one of the best five players in the world, he has never shown any type of consistency and this is despite the fact that Ole tried him in multiple positions to get the best out of him.
Part of a midfield three during his interim period, in the pivot, as a false left winger… Ole tried him in multiple positions with varying results and by and large was in detriment to the team as a whole. And when he got that red card in the painful 5-0 defeat against Liverpool, after having just came at halftime, you can’t help but think that the Norwegian put his trust in the wrong man and that pandering to Pogba got him sacked, especially by trying to adjust a notoriously inconsistent performer and one who has a history of using the dressing room to his benefit (which there is no doubt that he did here).
But of course, not everything was Pogba’s fault. Solskjær’s tactical limitations were shown in different periods of his tenure and this is probably what broke the camel’s back at the end of the day: not having the tactical acumen to push this squad’s performances to the next level. There were some moments of fast-paced, burning football and some games where Ole and his coaching staff got it spot on, thus making up for the finest moments of the post-Ferguson era, but overall, the team struggled on a tactical level and this was clearly shown in recent months where Ole never found an answer to get consistent performances.
This last point is a byproduct of two things, one of them being that the players were no longer convinced that his methods were the best to win. Now, beyond Pogba, I don’t know which players downed tools, but it’s worth pointing out that even if they didn’t, not having conviction on the manager’s ideas and methods is a clear sign that the ship has failed and ultimately that’s on the manager. The second half against Manchester City this season was disgraceful and it showed a group of players that were not even willing to run for their manager and their own self-respect, which highlights how Ole maybe should have left earlier, especially after the Liverpool fiasco.
The other thing is the coaching staff. One of Sir Alex Ferguson’s biggest virtues, and one that he has constantly explained, is that renewing your coaching staff can lead to adding fresh ideas and modern tactical nuances to your methods. Ole’s coaching staff, bar Mike Phelan, was quite inexperienced and you can tell this during several stages of his tenure, especially near the end. And the presence of an experienced, tactically-knowledgeable coach might have made things a bit more different. There is nothing wrong with having young coaches but that has to be balanced by experience and Solskjær might have been punished for being too loyal to his men.
And perhaps his biggest sin was relying too much on those and what worked for him during some key moments of his time as the United manager instead of trying to understand that that was sustainable and find ways to improve. Scott McTominay and Fred had some good moments and runs, but everybody and their grandma knew that the club had to invest in the pivot and they didn’t. Here you have the results.
A lot of people have mentioned the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo as the cause of a lot of problems for Solskjær because he had to adjust a player he didn’t ask for to his system and while this is true, I don’t think this was the Norwegian’s fault as any other United manager would have had to face this situation too. Ole was just the one when it happened and now the future manager is going to have to find a way to make the team work with Cristiano in the starting eleven, with all the good and the bad that entails.
Add to this reluctance for rotation, which was understandable at first due to squad limitations but that only became a problem as the options improved for Ole and he usually stuck to the same group of players. And while is true that managers usually have their guys to rely on, it would have benefitted him to give other players more of a chance.
This is where Ole failed. We can point out other small details, but managers are always going to mess up from time to time, no matter how successful they are–these are the issues I consider the most important and worth pointing out.
But there is a desire from certain factions to make people believe that Solskjær doesn’t have a positive legacy as a manager and firmly think otherwise and I would go as far as saying that, despite not being able of winning trophies, which is of course fundamental at a club like Manchester United, Ole was the first manager of the post-Ferguson era.
As mentioned before, his squad-building abilities have proven to be quite great. Sure, not signing in the pivot proved to be his doom, but he has built a good enough squad that a lot of top managers would be craving to have their hands on this group of players. This is something that none of Moyes, van Gaal and Mourinho managed to do: leave the squad in much better conditions than how they found it. And this will prove fundamental in the coming years.
He managed to develop players and helped fulfil their potential. Marcus Rashford went from a frustrating young prospect into a full-blown star and his numbers improved massively with Ole. Mason Greenwood was given his debut and developed properly to become the player he is today. Scott McTominay, while far from a world class player, improved drastically with Ole and his best performances with a United shirt were with the Norwegian. He got more than thirty goal contributions from Anthony Martial in the 2019/20 season and made Luke Shaw fulfil his talent in the 2020/21 one. Players like Fred or Victor Lindelof, while criticised, managed to play a lot better with him than with Jose Mourinho. And the list goes on.
While the football wasn’t constant and that doomed Ole in the long run, the high points were the highest of the post-Ferguson era. The sheer excitement, electricity and intensity of Solskjær’s prime as a United manager were something borderline addictive and showed how much of a connection he had built between the players and the supporters, which had been long gone with previous managers.
The trashing of the likes of Roma, Southampton or Leeds, the endless comebacks, the big game victories against top class managers like Guardiola, Pochettino, Sarri, Klopp, Nagelsmann, Tuchel, among many others, that night in Paris, the away record… you can’t seriously tell me that you’re a United fan and that those big moments with Ole don’t bring a smile to your face when you remember them.
And this is because Ole revived something very primal and fundamental in football: the joy and excitement for the game among United supporters. No one can say that United under Ole, for all their flaws, were boring. And a United team should never be boring. After so many years of football depression with Moyes, van Gaal and Mourinho, the fire between the club and the supporters was lit again and it was done by a man that lived and breathed United. A man that fully understood the values of the institution and gave his 100%.
A man that was savagely criticised and attack on a regular basis since he got the job on a permanent basis, with people constantly questioning his credentials, his personality, his values and even his smile for the sake of likes, clicks and reactions. And despite all that, he never said a bad word, never attacked the press, never threw a player under the bus (even when perhaps they deserved it) and who was a complete gentleman during his entire tenure from beginning to end.
A man that showed that there could be hope at Old Trafford after so many years. A man that taught us that mountains are there to be climbed.
All the best, Ole. It has been a pleasure. And a wild ride.