Two Years of Solskjaer: Analysing the Progress of Manchester United

It was two years ago that Manchester United first turned to legendary former player Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, appointing the 1999 Champions League hero as an interim successor to Jose Mourinho – sacked on 18 December 2018 after a poor first half of the season.

Having guided United to second place with a tally of 81 points in the 2017/18 campaign, Mourinho cut an increasingly frustrated figure in the summer of 2018 and beyond. A lack of transfer activity to build on the previous season was a major source of contention, with the club unprepared to suitably back him in the market to make the key improvements necessary to challenge for the title.

United went backwards and by December, Mourinho’s position appeared increasingly untenable.

Jose Mourinho was sacked on 18 December 2018 | PAUL ELLIS/Getty Images

The decision to sever ties with the two-time Champions League winner was made after a 3-1 defeat to Liverpool, although the damage had been done previously.

Solskjaer was appointed the following day, effectively on loan from Molde during the Norwegian off-season while United weighed up their long-term options.

The retired striker had spent 11 years at Old Trafford as a player, followed by another four as a coach, first helping out with first-team training and then taking over as reserve team boss.

Plenty questioned his credentials to return to United as manager when his only previous job in English football had been a disastrous nine month stint at Cardiff. But Solskjaer had at least achieved plenty with Molde, winning the club’s first two Norwegian titles and paving the way for domestic dominance that continues today. He also obviously knew United inside out, while his optimistic and charming character offered a breath of fresh air after the sullen Mourinho.

Solskjaer won titles in Norway with Molde | SVEIN OVE EKORNESVAAG/Getty Images

Solskjaer initially got the job on a temporary basis, with Molde expecting him back in Norway within a few months. But eight wins straight off the bounce was difficult to ignore. His only defeat in his first 17 games in charge was against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League last 16, but a depleted United team later completed an historic comeback in the second leg.

Despite defeats against Arsenal and Wolves in the Premier League and FA Cup respectively immediately after that, United officials handed Solskjaer a three-year contract until 2022 towards the end of the March international break.

Yet from there, the uplift from having ‘Ole at the wheel’ turned into the wheels falling off.

United seemed to be paying the price for a change to a more energetic pressing style midway through the season that the players hadn’t been prepared for the previous pre-season under a different regime with a very different style of play.

Marcus Rashford, Ole Gunnar SolskjaerMarcus Rashford, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Solskjaer got the job permanently in March 2019 | TF-Images/Getty Images

After the famous PSG win, United won just two of their final nine Premier League games, including a draw and defeat against relegated Huddersfield and Cardiff respectively in the last two.

However, seemingly for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, United went into the summer of 2019 with a real strategy in place and a long-term vision. That was in stark contrast to the preceding six years when transfer policy appeared disjointed and slapdash at best.

Suddenly, club officials decided they wanted to build a new squad, with younger players, preferably domestic, who could develop and improve over time. No longer would they pursue established superstars like Gareth Bale or make another mistake like Alexis Sanchez.

But has it worked? Well…sort of.

Since Solskjaer was appointed permanent manager in March 2019, United’s squad has undergone considerable transformation, significantly lowering the age and repositioning for long-term aims.

Buying for now, as they were guilty of trying to do before, will only get you so far and is an increasingly expensive and unsustainable way of delivering success.

Ander Herrera, Antonio Valencia, Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Matteo Darmian and Chris Smalling have all gone. Andreas Pereira joined Lazio on loan for this season, Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and a few others are still earmarked as surplus to requirements.

Harry MaguireHarry Maguire
A lot of players have come and gone under Solskjaer | Michael Regan/Getty Images

United have brought in Daniel James, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Harry Maguire, Bruno Fernandes, Donny van de Beek, Alex Telles, Facundo Pellistri and (soon) Amad Diallo. Edinson Cavani is a short-term solution until a younger ‘number nine’-type striker can be recruited. Not every player is intended to be a starter, with depth what usually set the club apart in Solskjaer’s own playing days.

The rebuild is not complete. United badly failed in their efforts to land Jadon Sancho during the summer, with a right-sided attacker a key need to improve creativity, appearing to underestimate Borussia Dortmund and taking the wrong attitude into negotiations.

A centre-back is a priority for 2021, with Villarreal’s Pau Torres a leading name on the shortlist of possible targets, while a defensive midfielder and right-back are also wanted.

United are definitely on the right track in terms of squad building, but Solskjaer’s lack of trust in his back-up players, leading to minimal rotation and fatigue during ‘Project Restart’ is still an issue.

Mason GreenwoodMason Greenwood
The squad is younger but still incomplete | Pool/Getty Images

The players that United have signed since adopting a new philosophy and backing Solskjaer have generally been good, but the club’s efficiency in the transfer market has been very poor. There is little the manager can do about the latter, only hoping he is given the necessary tools for the job and can do enough to survive in the meantime until that point is reach – if it ever is.

Until the hierarchy – executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward and chief negotiator Matt Judge, both of whom are culpable for shortcomings – can get that right, any manager will struggle to succeed.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Paul PogbaOle Gunnar Solskjaer, Paul Pogba
Solskjaer has struggled to stamp an identity on his team | Boris Streubel/Getty Images

Because the squad rebuild is not complete and United still lack key players in a number of positions, the style of play has been a little all over the place.

This season in particular, Solskjaer has used a number of different tactical systems, often switching things up game to game. United have done best under the Norwegian’s leadership when facing bigger teams, typically allowing them to cede more possession than they would normally and play on the counter attack.

In other games, sloppy mistakes and perhaps a lack of understanding from the players over what is exactly being asked of them, tends to lead to setbacks, after which United are then forced to be reactive, rather than proactive in a tactical sense.

The assumption is that the team will gain more of an identity once the recruitment side of things is more complete and Solskjaer has the players he wants. Perhaps some of the players he has aren’t good enough for what he wants, meaning he’s had to fudge and compromise while he waits for new faces, but it doesn’t necessarily paint the Norwegian in a very good light that he hasn’t done more to lay down a clearer system up to now.

Man Utd have had major ups & downs under Solskjaer | RUI VIEIRA/Getty Images

The only way to describe United’s results and performance in the last two years is mixed.

At times, Solskjaer’s team have played the best football United fans have seen since the days of Sir Alex Ferguson. It can’t be a coincidence that five of the club’s seven biggest wins of the last seven years have all come on Solskjaer’s watch.

It would also be wrong to gloss over home and away wins against Manchester City and Chelsea in multiple competitions last season, as well as being the first team to take points off Liverpool.

In what was Solskjaer’s first full season in charge, United finished third in the Premier League, their second highest in the post-Ferguson era, returned to the Champions League and reached the semi-finals of three cup competitions.

Yet United have rarely felt convincing in their performances, especially this season. They have won enough games to be better than most, but something has been missing.

As already alluded to, the players too often only seem able to react, rather than dictate a game. Solskjaer actually admitted his surprise after being run unnecessarily close by Sheffield United just this week that his team continues to make the same mistakes, even after been shown videos to address it.

Solskjaer and the United coaching staff obviously have to do more to get the point across. But, again, he is aiming for a standard he still doesn’t have the full equipment to reach.

It may not always seem it, but United are in a better position now than two years ago when Solskjaer first walked back though the door as boss.

It isn’t perfect and whether he is the right man to deliver success in the long-term is still debatable. But if the club is to make a change on that front, it would have to be as a continuation or evolution of what Solskjaer has already started.

The journey is still the right one, but it’s a slower one than expected.

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