Glass half full or empty – Through which lens should we see Solskjær’s time at United?
In December 2018, an already under-pressure Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United travelled to Anfield to face their perennial rivals Liverpool, in what would prove to be his final game as the manager of the club. Xherdan Shaqiri came off the bench in the second half to score a brace and deliver the final nail in the coffin to the Portuguese manager’s tenure at Old Trafford. United till that point in the season looked lacklustre, even if the results didn’t totally suggest that. It was clear to see that ‘The Special One’ had lost the dressing room and after the game at Anfield, the board took the decision to part ways with Mourinho.
As is the case after a managerial sacking, a lot of names were thrown around in the press as to who might be the suitable candidate to take over the hot seat. Mauricio Pochettino and Laurent Blanc led the pack as favourites. There were also other names mentioned such as Massimiliano Allegri, Ryan Giggs and even Marco Rose, the-then Salzburg manager. Instead of appointing a permanent figure right away, Manchester United vice-chairman Ed Woodward decided to appoint someone on a temporary basis, with that person being Ole Gunnar Solskjær.
Solskjær’s start to life as a United manager couldn’t have gone any better, with a 5-1 thrashing of his former club Cardiff City on debut. He went on to win his first eight games in all competitions, six of those in the Premier League, a run that was eventually snapped with a 2-2 draw against Burnley at Old Trafford. Solskjær became the first manager in Manchester United’s history to win his first five games in charge of the club. His fine form was rewarded with him winning the Manager of the Month award for January.
His first loss as the interim manager came when Paris Saint-Germain visited Old Trafford in February for their Champions League Round of 16 clash. PSG won the first leg 2-0 and were far the better side on the day. Marquinhos had the game of his life, dominating play from deep in midfield. “Mountains are there to be climbed”, said Solskjær, when asked about how he planned to turn things around. Three weeks later, Diogo Dalot took a potshot in the dying stages of the second leg when United were in need of a single goal to qualify. Five minutes later, Marcus Rashford converted a penalty against Gianluigi Buffon to complete the unlikeliest of comebacks.
After winning 14 out of his first 19 games, Solskjær signed a 3-year contract which made him the permanent Manchester United manager.
Glass half empty
Ever since being named as the United boss on a permanent basis, results haven’t been that kind to Solskjær. Last season after the announcement, the Red Devils went on a complete downward spiral which saw them being kicked out of the Champions League and FA Cup at the quarter-final stage. In the League, they started dropping off the pace and the momentum they had over their rivals for a top 4 spot was fast dissipating. A major down point in the Norwegian’s tenure in the 18/19 season was the 4-0 loss at Goodison Park. United looked like a team that was confirmed to be relegated, not one that was competing for a place in Europe’s most prestigious competition, with pundits and fans alike starting to doubt Solskjær’s ability to lead the club. Eventually, Manchester United finished 6th with no trophies and only secured a Europa League place, no better than what Mourinho had left them with.
After the end of last season, everyone gave Solskjær the benefit of the doubt. He came in and wanted the team which ran the least in the league, to run the most. His high-pressing, high-paced football was there for everyone to see, but due to players being worn out, coupled with injuries, meant that they weren’t able to give their 100% every match.
Nevertheless, United started the 2019/20 campaign with a clean slate. Three new additions to the squad in Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and the speedster, Daniel James, along with a promising pre-season, and it looked like Ole was at the wheel again. United won their first game of the season, a 4-0 thumping of Chelsea and things started to look up again. But the optimism didn’t last long. The Norwegian won only one game out of his next 8 which saw United slip to 14th place at one point. The doubts started creeping in once again.
With 9 games to go in the Premier League season, Solskjær has the worst points tally and win percentage of any permanent manager in Manchester United history. Add to that the fact that his only other experience in the League is leading Cardiff to relegation, and it begs the question whether taking over the reigns at Old Trafford has been a step too far for him.
Up until December, Solskjær’s results were below par – losses away to Newcastle and West Ham, draws against Sheffield United and Aston Villa – all games which Manchester United should be winning. His record in Europa League and cup competitions wasn’t great either as it consisted of narrow wins over the likes of Astana and Partizan Belgrade along with a draw in normal time against League One side Rochdale. Again, games United should have won fairly comfortably.
“I’m a patient person myself, but if Klopp or if Guardiola were the manager of Manchester United, then I’m certain you would have seen a huge improvement with what they’ve got. These players, a lot of them are very good players and a lot of them are not playing to their potential. You look at the other two teams – Guardiola and Klopp get the best [out of them]. You name a player out of those two squads that hasn’t got better under the management, under the guidance of them.” – Michael Owen after Manchester United’s loss to Bournemouth in November.
Or glass half full?
December brought another test, consecutive games against a rejuvenated Tottenham side and the reigning champions, Manchester City. There were a lot of rumours that failure to deliver results in these two games would’ve brought the 47-year-old’s position as the United boss under serious consideration. But, Solskjaer passed the test with flying colours with 2 wins and 2 great performances to match these wins and ever since United have been on a slow and steady upward trajectory, barring some inconsistencies.
Despite the below-par results, progress has been made under the leadership of the Norwegian. United have been underperforming their xG massively this season. By 4.32 to be precise and are 7 points off their expected points tally. They’ve even conceded more goals than their xGA tally this season. If a table is made according to the expected points tally, then Manchester United would be 4th. Stats can be deceptive but all of this suggests that Manchester United’s situation under Ole Gunnar Solskjær isn’t as bad as some sections of the media are making it to be.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær has played a big part in improving the players present at the club as well. Marcus Before getting injured, Marcus Rashford was enjoying his best goal scoring form under the Norweigan when the England international was deployed in a left-wing/shadow-striker hybrid role which brought the best out of him. Rashford’s goal scoring record saw him rise to 3rd in the race for Premier League golden boot and was well on his way to a 30-goal season before the back injury ruled him out for the majority of the back end of the season. Scott McTominay was in the best form of his life before he was struck with an injury as well. All the new signings have hit the ground running from the get-go and are having very good seasons. Nemanja Matic and Luke Shaw are also enjoying their best run of form since they came at this club. But the biggest feather in Solskjær’s cap of improving players has to be the Brazilian, Fred.
After a very poor first season, Fred was rumoured to be on his way out of Manchester United. However, an injury to Paul Pogba meant Fred had a spell starting games in the first half of the campaign. He grabbed this opportunity with both hands and has since been Manchester United’s best player this season. The Brazilian was a nervous, error-prone midfielder before Solskjær made him into a relentless workhorse. Fred has won back possession more times than any other midfielder in the top 6 sides this season and has truly become one of the first names on the team sheet.
“It is up to the board to decide, we do not have the power to decide on this. But he is very nice, he is an extraordinary person, he talks a lot, he has a playful side and he is always smiling.” – Fred talking about Ole’s future in February.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s plan was very clear when he took over this club. Play a 4-2-3-1, press high or drop off depending on situations and attack as quickly as possible when you win back the ball. That is why Paul Pogba played a lot deeper in the first four matches, allowing him to spray long passes from deep midfield and make things happen. Similar to how he plays for France. For a while, it was working well. But then, a long term injury to Pogba forced Solskjær back to the drawing board. So what do good managers do when they are back to square one? They look at other teams and ask “What elements can I incorporate into my team?”, “What suits my players?”. Manchester United were left with only 3 options to play deeper in midfield: Nemanja Matic, Scott McTominay and Fred and although all 3 of them had risen to the occasion, no combination of these 3 could have replaced the creativity that the Frenchman offered.
So what do you do when your midfield offers no creativity? You look 33 miles down the M62 and see what Liverpool are doing. Jürgen Klopp has taken the onus of creativity off his midfielders and asked his fullbacks to do all the creative work. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson push high up while the midfield drops deep and stays compact. Roberto Firmino drops deep to link the play while Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah cut inside to play more centrally.
United didn’t have that luxury when Anthony Martial was injured at the start of the season since the striker left to drop deep and link was Rashford whose best position is facing and running towards the goal. Since Martial’s return, United have had shades of the Liverpool side with Martial dropping deep to release James and Rashford on either flank. James likes to hug the touchline while Rashford likes to cut inside and play more centrally.
This tactic worked exceptionally well against the big teams since United are masters of soaking up pressure and attacking with pace on either flank. The best example being the Manchester City game at the Etihad stadium in December where United’s front 3 tore through the Manchester City backline on multiple occasions in the first half and as a result, scored 2 goals. But the most glaring problem with Manchester United was their inability to break down teams who play with a low block.
Solskjaer identified this and started playing Mason Greenwood and Juan Mata on the right flank who like to cut inside allowing the fullbacks to maraud forward and create overloads in attack and it worked. United’s results against the lesser teams improved since the tactical change and slowly but surely, things were getting better. Still, something was missing – a creative fulcrum from the middle of the pitch since Andreas Pereira and Jesse Lingard haven’t been up to the mark for the majority of the season. Cue, Bruno Fernandes.
Bruno Fernandes, since coming in, has arguably been United’s best player. 2 goals and 3 assists in 5 Premier League games saw him win the PFA Player of the month award and he has completely transformed this United side. His addition has been a breath of fresh air and he seems to be having a real influence on the pitch and it’s no surprise Manchester United are enjoying their best run of form since he has come in.
The tactical flexibility shown by Solskjaer this season has been very impressive. Manchester United have won against Manchester City on 3 different occasions and have had different tactics in each of the games. United have shown they can press, they can drop deep and absorb pressure, they can dominate possession and they can be quick to transition from defence to attack whenever required. The main problem has been creating chances in attack. United have struggled against teams who tend to sit deep but even that has shown a bit of an improvement in the past few weeks.
“It’s about getting every player to be their very best. It’s about getting your philosophy through and principles of how we want to play. At Man United, we play without fear, we play with courage. Go out there and express your skills. Be the kids that love to play football and go out and play in front of the best fans in the world.” – Ole talking about his coaching philosophy
Even if Solskjaer may not come across as the best tactician around, one thing he definitely deserves credit for is his man-management. The players seem to love playing with each other and there seems to be, at least from the outside, a healthy dressing room at Old Trafford. One particular example which shows the Norwegian’s man-management skills is his treatment of Fred. The Brazilian had booked his wedding celebrations for mid-July when he would be on holiday following the Copa America, only to be left out of the Brazil squad owing to his poor form. Solskjær showed compassion where others wouldn’t and allowed Fred to take the extra break he had planned. This proved to be a very good decision by Solskjær as it left a lasting impression on Fred and his performances reflect that he is repaying the faith the 47-year-old kept in him.
Not only that, it seems that all the players in the squad like Solskjær a lot with a majority of them publicly coming out and defending him when things weren’t going right for the Norwegian manager.
“I don’t read too much into what gets said online, or in the press, or different things like that. Obviously it’s our duty as players to go out there and do our best for him and hopefully, we can [perform well] because we love him. We love him as a group as well. So, hopefully, we can start putting in performances. Some of the points we’ve missed out on this year have not represented the level of performance as well, so hopefully, we can keep pushing forward now.” – Scott McTominay speaking to MUTV in early December
When Mourinho was sacked, United’s transition period was rebooted back to square one. The transition period began when Louis van Gaal took over from David Moyes and veterans like Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were all shunted out of the club. The Dutch manager liked to play a possession-based system and brought in the players which suited the style of play he wanted to implement in the long term but his tenure as Manchester United manager was cut short when the board decided to swap him out for Jose Mourinho after just 2 seasons at the helm. It looked like a desperate move to match the ambitions of their noisy neighbours who had just signed Pep Guardiola to become the new manager. The board gravitated towards instant success rather than long term sustainability.
All of Mourinho’s signing indicated the same as well. He signed players who were in their prime or had at the most one or two years left in their prime. He also sold or froze out a majority of the signings made by van Gaal such as Schweinsteiger, Schneiderlin, Memphis Depay, Daley Blind while Matteo Darmian fell out of favour under Mourinho. For his money, the Portuguese did deliver. Two trophies in his first season and then the highest finish for Manchester United in the second season. Things went downhill in the third when Ole was hired, the roster consisted of misfits and deadwood.
One glaring mistake that the board made during Mourinho’s tenure was offering Alexis Sanchez a lavish contract with very high wages. Sanchez’s stint at Manchester United turned out to be a disaster on the pitch and off the pitch as well. Other players started demanding high wages as a result of the money that the Chilean was earning disrupting the whole wage structure at the club. The squad and the wage structure was in shambles but the identity and the values that this club was built on were disappearing as well. Manchester United as a club was broken from the top to the bottom.
Solskjaer came in and immediately tried to fix that. He was quick to get rid of the players who saw their future somewhere else and the players who just weren’t good enough anymore. The Norwegian has been very careful in his recruitment, signing only those who would give their blood and sweat for the badge in front. Solskjær is trying to change the culture at Manchester United. He is trying to change the structure that exists at Manchester United and if there is anyone who knows what this club is all about, it is the former Norwegian striker.
In his time as United boss so far, Ole Gunnar Solskjær has done a good job with recruitment. All of his signings have performed well up until this point of the season. Aaron Wan Bissaka is one of the best right- backs in the Premier League while Daniel James has been very influential in a very thin attacking lineup. Harry Maguire was recently named the new Manchester United captain and has been the club’s best central defender this season. Bruno Fernandes has had an amazing start to his life as the Manchester United linchpin and Odion Ighalo has already scored 3 times and is proving to be a very handy backup option to Martial. Ole’s integration of Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams from the under 23s to the main squad has been near flawless and the atmosphere around the club has also changed since the days under Mourinho. There seems to be a real togetherness in the squad and they seem to enjoy each other’s company.
Yes, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has made mistakes but so has every other manager in their career. Despite being in the management game for almost 10 years, Solskjaer is still fairly inexperienced when it comes to managing at such a high level. He will only improve with time and evidence suggests that he already has.
“He is a much better manager than one year ago in my opinion because now he knows all the players, he knows exactly what he needs to do before the games, so I think for his job the experience is very important.” – Nemanja Matic in February
In the 16 months that Solskjær has been the Manchester United manager, he has shown tactical maturity, excellent man-management skills and some pretty nifty recruitment. Having said that, there are still two major perspectives currently floating about in the public when it comes to the Norweigian being at the helm of the club – Some feel that the club should move quickly and hire a manager with a better CV than the Norwegian since good managers don’t stay out of the job for a long time. The other perspective being that Solskjaer has slow progress but steady progress. His long term vision requires time and he should get the time to see his vision through.
Currently, Manchester United sit 5th, 3 points off top 4, still in the hunt for the FA cup and the Europa League and are just coming back off a solid victory over Manchester City. United are currently enjoying their best run of form since the Norwegian took over on a permanent basis. They are unbeaten in 10 games, winning 8 of those while scoring 24 and conceding just 2. They have also managed to keep 8 clean sheets in the process. Solskjær’s record against the top 6 sides is very impressive, to say the least. He has managed to record wins over Manchester City and Chelsea twice, Leicester City, Tottenham and is one of the only 2 managers to stop Liverpool from winning a league game this season.
The 47-year-old has taken the hardest job in the world and is doing the job the hard way. Putting the club’s interests first, even if it means that it could cost him his job since the work he has been doing requires time and patience. Solskjær is trying to bring back the culture, the values, the mentality that Manchester United were always known for.
The baby faced assassin has been doubted and ridiculed a lot by the press and the fans this season but if the recent results are anything to go by, it looks like the manager has turned a corner and converted many doubters into believers. Many who believed that the glass was half empty may now believe that the glass is indeed, half full. Whether or not Solskjær brings the glory days back to Old Trafford remains to be seen but he has done enough to deserve more time and certainly done more than enough to deserve more respect.
Written by Hrishikesh Dabir
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