?At the time of writing, just over a year has passed since Manchester United did the unthinkable and knocked Paris Saint-Germain out of the ?Champions League with a 3-1 win at the Parc des Princes, overcoming a terrible first leg which saw them lose 2-0 at home. While United exited in the next round, the game was a high in a season of lows for United fans.
Then-interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had nothing to lose after replacing Jose Mourinho in December. Steady the ship, enjoy a few months in charge at the Theatre of Dreams, and perhaps leave a mark on the history of the club once more.
He did more than that.
That night in Paris was one of the better memories in a turbulent few years for the club, and Ole was the man at the wheel conducting the comeback.
While the permanent appointment of Solskjaer in March 2019 was an audacious one to say the least, it was one that suggested to some fans that the board were perhaps finally looking beyond immediate success, arguably for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, despite the appointment coming off the back of that famous Champions League comeback.
Everything seemed bright and cheerful once again at Old Trafford, but Solskjaer’s appointment was most definitely papering over the cracks, and it still hasn’t quite paid off…yet.
United waved goodbye to the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Ander Herrera in Solskjaer’s first summer transfer window, two players who were regulars in the starting XI. While one could argue that the decision – seemingly Solskjaer’s own – to sell the club’s second best goalscorer in the 2018/19 campaign was a bold decision, Lukaku’s revival in Italy has suggested that it may have been naive.
That sale combined with United’s lack of firepower in midfield has proved costly at times this season, where they have dropped points in poor fashion to the likes of Wolves, Crystal Palace, Southampton and even Bournemouth, who are in a relegation battle. Allowing some dynamic attacking players to leave, combined with Solskjaer’s apparent inability to break down defensive, low-block opposition, has made for another inconsistent campaign for the Red Devils.
And while another criticism of Solskjaer has been his poor decision-making with team selection and substitutions, turning to the likes of Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira perhaps too often (the former has failed to register a Premier League goal or assist so far this season) his hand has been somewhat forced.
The counter-argument in favour of Solskjaer is that the board have failed to replace key players time and again, leaving the Manchester United head coach short of quality, game-changing options. When you further consider that United spent roughly £190m in summer, including a record-breaking fee to bring in defender Harry Maguire from Leicester, the board should share some of the blame for how they have spent that money.
Solskjaer has taken a lot of flack from rival fans – and some United fans too – since his permanent appointment as head coach, being told time and again that he is simply not cut out for the job. With a top-four finish (coronavirus pending) once again uncertain for United, many believe that another manager in his position would’ve been sacked by now. Maybe those people are correct.
This was always going to be another rebuilding season; the only issue is that fans have endured so many failed ‘rebuilds’ (if you can even call them that) since 2013 that patience is growing thin. What Solskjaer has accomplished amid his downfalls, however, was recognising and trusting his young talent.
Teenagers Brandon Williams and Mason Greenwood have been shining stars in an uncertain season. Williams has made 25 appearances for the first team in all competitions, including standout performances in big games against Liverpool and Manchester City. As for Mason Greenwood, the stats don’t lie. So far, he’s bagged 11 goals this season at barely 18 years old, and has been pivotal to United as a rotation option.
While Solskjaer definitely has his flaws, he also deserves credit where it’s due. Despite results being inconsistent and United currently sitting on just 45 points after 29 games – 12 worse off than this time last season – a turnaround in form since the new year has created a buzz around Old Trafford.
The mid-season signing of Bruno Fernandes lifted spirits around the club, with his immediate impact of six goal contributions in eight games seeing him grab the club’s Player of the Month award for February. While splashing £47m on a mid-season European import isn’t a luxury that many Premier League clubs can afford, his immediate success as an attacking midfielder can be credited to Solskjaer, who was clear in what type of player he was desperate for in January.
With Bruno’s help, Solskjaer’s United side are now unbeaten in their last nine games and have edged out Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City twice in that time. The confidence is flowing, and perhaps this is a sign of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer finally getting to grips with his squad and learning from previous mistakes (and Bruno quickly becoming United’s best player, obviously).
There’s a reason that rival managers have had nothing but compliments for Solskjaer at times this season. Like a mid 2000’s Randy Orton, Solskjaer has proven to be the ‘Legend Killer’ at times – except he doesn’t wear wrestling trunks or try for the RKO in the technical area.
Solskjaer’s awareness to see his side’s limitations is why he can steady the ship at Manchester United, if given time and proper backing from the board. He understands that there are certain types of football that his side are simply not capable of playing as of yet, which is why he has halted the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal, and Premier league champions-elect Liverpool, and beaten noisy neighbours Manchester City three times this season.
However, he must learn to wipe clear errors out of his game if he wants to make the most of his opportunity. Points dropped in ‘easier’ games this season could prove costly, and basics such as tactics and substitutions must be improved.
If Solskjaer can continue to remove deadwood and slowly bring in the right players to fit alongside the new wave of youth, then maybe, just maybe, he can turn ?Manchester United into a ruthless attacking unit once more and restore some consistency at the club, even if that is as far as his qualities can take the club.