Following Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, Manchester United had become a club devoid of ideas, optimism, and above all, quality. The Stretford residents were once the dominant superpower of world football, but due to the input of messrs Moyes, Van Gaal, and Mourinho, the club found itself in a state of what appeared to be irreversible stagnation. The fallen behemoth have spent an estimated £775 million on transfer fees, utilised experimental tactical systems, and repeatedly swapped managers in an effort to become a force in English football once more. Ultimately, each move has proven misguided, impulsive, and unsuccessful. However, following the quickfire appointment of the 1999 Champions League final hero Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, United now find themselves in what is their most promising, yet for the board, their most precarious position in years.
Appointed on an explicitly interim basis on December 19 following what was an inevitable sacking of Jose Mourinho, Solskjaer has exceeded expectations and revolutionised United simply by reminding it of what it once was. Within days, Solskjaer altered Mourinho’s turgid defensive system and instilled confidence in a talented but disillusioned group of modern players. His laissez-faire approach has produced a United team reminiscent of teams of old; one that plays with freedom, intent, and a willingness to express itself. In this sense, Solskjaer’s lack of managerial calibre has been his greatest asset, in that he has been equipped with a set of players who ultimately do not want to be over-coached, but simply given a platform to perform.
His reinstatement of Ferguson’s ex-assistant, Mike Phelan, was another influential masterstroke in United’s change of fortunes, as was Solskjaer’s repeated references to Ferguson as a “mentor”. Both of these decisions have indicated to the players that they are not playing for the shameless commercial machine United had become, but for a club with a rich history, and one which has on-field success as its main prerogative. The consequence of this reversion to old principles has been free-flowing attacking football, one defeat in 13 games, a place in the top four, and an optimism around Old Trafford which had not been seen since Ferguson’s retirement. Thus the obvious question becomes, will Solskjaer be given the chance to coach the club he so clearly loves on a permanent basis?
Solskjaer’s success has, however, provided the dysfunctional United board with a self-induced dilemma. Do they appoint Solskjaer, an ex-player and club legend who has been successful in the short term, but whose CV is admittedly bare, or do they chase Mauricio Pochettino, a manager with considerably more experience, but with no ties to the club, and zero trophies to his name. Not many would fans choose the latter, but unfortunately for United fans, the decision will be made by someone who might. When United lost Ferguson, it must be remembered that they also lost David Gill, a chief executive with an in-depth knowledge of not only commerce, but football too. His successor, Ed Woodward, ultimately lacks the latter. Indeed, he has revolutionised the commercial side of the club, and must be commended for doing so, but Woodward’s decision making regarding what is best for the football side of things has been ill-conceived and, at times, idiotic.
Be it the transfer of Marouane Fellaini under David Moyes for £30 million, a week after he could have been bought for far cheaper due to a clause in his Everton contract, the appointment of Louis Van Gaal over the “inexperienced” Ryan Giggs, a man who knew the club and its philosophy inside out, or the replacement of Van Gaal following two years of archaic football, with Jose Mourinho, an ex-assistant student of Van Gaal’s said school of archaic football. Woodward has proven time and time again that he lacks the required foresight when it comes to football related decisions. Time and time again, he has sought the glamorous decision, the tried-and-tested, and time and time again, it has failed. The temptation for Woodward to go for the “bigger name” this summer, and pursue Mauricio Pochettino of Tottenham instead of the universally adored Solskjaer, may prove too strong for his notoriously small-minded approach to resist.
However, Woodward’s infamous incapability aside, there is no reason why Solskjaer should not be Manchester United manager come next season. In his short reign, he has provided a multitude of reasons as to why he is the man to bring United back to its former glories. His influence has gone far beyond simply “playing attacking football”. It is clear from the performances of Paul Pogba, Victor Lindelof, Ander Herrera, Jesse Lingard, and in particular, Marcus Rashford, that Solskjaer has superior player management abilities than the so-called “Special One” had, or the self-proclaimed tactical mastermind, Van Gaal. In three months, he has outperformed two managers who are considered to be amongst the greatest of all time.
Furthermore, the fact that Solskjaer has been the man to oversee the sale of Marouane Fellaini, a player who embodied the issues of the post-Ferguson era, speaks volumes of his intentions. Fellaini was often described as a “useful cog” in Mourinho’s anti-football machine, but it is difficult to describe how out of place the marauding Belgian was at a club of Manchester United’s stature. Incapable of passing a football, wreckless in the tackle, ill-disciplined in every sense of the word, Fellaini personified contemporary Manchester United. Solskjaer was the first to recognise this, and sold him at the first opportunity. His decision to drop the sporadically brilliant but ultimately uninspiring Romelu Lukaku has also been a masterful one, with the Mourinho stalwart’s absence allowing United to revert to the pass-and-move football of old. Indeed, since Lukaku has found himself on the bench, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial have drawn comparisons to Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo. Before Solskjaer’s appointment, they were more akin to Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee.
Above all, to quote club legend Rio Ferdinand, Solskjaer has brought the “feel good” factor back to Old Trafford. Even following the one blemish on his United record, a 2-0 home defeat to Paris Saint Germain, Solskjaer’s contagious optimism was apparent, as he defiantly asserted that the tie was not over. “Yes we have a mountain to climb”, he said, “but mountains are there to be climbed”. Had this been Jose Mourinho, we would have been treated to the Portuguese passionately defending his managerial record at Chelsea, or accusing his players of being below the requisite standard.
Under Solskjaer, no such toxic criticism can be found. It is this kind of positivity that has catalysed wins over Tottenham, Arsenal, and Chelsea, as well as the rejuvenation of Paul Pogba. The Mourinho outcast’s declaration that “Ole trusts us, and we trust him”, following the recent 2-0 victory over Chelsea, speaks volumes of the effect Solskjaer’s positivity has had on the Manchester United players, and strongly suggests that he is the only viable candidate for the job. The fact that Pogba has scored more goals in three games under Solskjaer than he did for the entire season under Mourinho, serves to the same effect.
As such, the case for Solskjaer to be appointed on a full-time basis is a strong one. While he has drawn criticism for his inability to inspire the performances expected of Alexis Sanchez, Solskjaer has, as a whole, not so much transformed, but reformed Manchester United to what it once was. There is admittedly a long path ahead, with misfits such as Lukaku and defensive frailties to be addressed, but it is submitted that the “baby faced assassin” is undoubtedly the one to address them. Solskjaer embodies the modern manager; a facilitator, not a dictator. In his short audition, he has demonstrated that he is capable of managing the egos which Mourinho and Van Gaal could not, due in no small part to the size of their own, and placed United on the verge of Champions League qualification in a manner reminiscent of their former selves. While the fact that the decision lies with Ed Woodward is unsettling, Solskjaer’s appointment seems imminent, and as a result, so too does the renaissance of Manchester United.