?Manchester United have been transformed since Ole Gunnar Solskjær was drafted in to replace the tetchy Jose Mourinho in December, rediscovering their identity and looking full of confidence under the Norwegian.
However, United’s excellent run of results under his tutelage has masked some sub-par performances from both individual players and the team as a whole. Such inadequacies have been exposed in their last two fixtures, a 2-0 defeat by Arsenal and a shock FA Cup exit at the hands of Wolves.
To understand why Solskjær’s time at the helm is not quite what it seems, one must first look at the club’s situation when he arrived. ?The Red Devils were in turmoil, languishing 11 points off of the ?Premier League top four having endured a number of humbling defeats. They had also been unceremoniously dumped out of the League Cup in September by ?Championship outfit ?Derby County.
Compared to events preceding his interim appointment, almost anything that Solskjær achieved would have appeared impressive. It is difficult to overstate quite how dire United’s season had been, with the atmosphere at Old Trafford distinctly sour under Mourinho.
In that darkness, the ?Champions League winner offered something wholly different. He offered positivity, he offered kindness and he offered a chance for players to play without fear. These are arguably his finest qualities, characteristics that endeared him to the Old Trafford faithful. They were what United desperately needed, but they are not enough to cover the cracks in the walls and they are not a long-term fix.
For all of these wonderful traits, Solskjær has demonstrated a tactical naivety at times. One of the foremost examples of this came, somewhat perplexingly, during his finest hour in charge thus far.
The stunning victory at the Parc des Princes – where United turned around a two-goal first leg deficit to beat Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League last-16 – will live long in the memory of supporters, yet the display that night was average. In fact, it was poor.
The visitors were outclassed by their French opponents in almost every aspect of the game, except, of course, when it came to scoring. United were afforded just 28% of possession that night, had no corner kicks and conceded three times as many shots as their hosts. The hype around the club would have you believe that they are, once again, one of Europe’s best, but that display contradicted any such suggestions.
Those damning statistics are compounded by the manner of the side’s triumph. Their first two scores were hugely fortuitous, coming directly from awful mistakes by their opponents. Moreover, Marcus Rashford’s stoppage-time winner from the spot was highly contentious, referee Daniele Orsato’s harsh decision being met with both a chorus of boos and a sea of confusion from fans and pundits, alike.
For many, including some players, that famous evening in Paris cemented the Norwegian’s position as the best possible candidate for the permanent job. However, since securing their place in the Champions League quarter finals United have fallen to damaging losses at the Emirates and Molineux.
Though they remain in Europe’s elite competition, their best chance of qualifying for next season’s edition is undeniably the Premier League top four. They occupied fourth position going in to the clash with the Gunners, yet looked lethargic and lacked accuracy as their opponents leapfrogged them; Emery had worked his counterpart out at a crucial time.
During last weekend’s FA Cup defeat against ?Wolves the team looked equally toothless, relying on moments of individual brilliance rather than team cohesion. These consecutive failures may be an indication that the honeymoon period is over.
It is certainly not outlandish to say that the 46-year-old is less adept when with tactics than he is with team morale. His time at ?Cardiff City stands testament to this; 4-0 thrashings against ?Hull City and Sunderland, plus a 6-3 drubbing at home to ?Liverpool, are just some of the results that characterised his woeful tenure in south Wales.
Solskjær voiced his concerns following the 2-1 loss last Saturday, admitting that his players had been been misfiring in recent weeks.
“This was a big step backwards, mainly because of the quality of the possession and the passing,” he told ?BBC Sport. “We’ve had a great run and now we’ve had two defeats. Against Arsenal we just couldn’t score, and this was poor.”
It may be the case that the Red Devils are simply losing momentum. After Mourinho’s authoritarian, demoralising approach to management, the players would have been spurred into action by the freedom of expression and optimism Solskjær provides.
However, that kind of impetus will only go so far. It is beneficial to have a smiling coach who exhibits pride in and care for his recruits. But, organisational skills and tactical insight are also required. Solskjær doesn’t seem to possess the requisite levels of either, instead riding a wave of confidence and positivity.