Almost 20 years after securing Manchester United an historic treble with the winning goal in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been confirmed as the club’s manager.
Since taking over the role on an interim basis in December, succeeding the unpopular Jose Mourinho, he has racked up an impressive run of results in a short space of time: 14 wins, two draws and three defeats. This record, coupled with Solskjaer’s charisma, has led United to stick with the baby-faced Norwegian rather than pursuing a more experienced candidate.
Results have taken an undeniable upturn since the arrival of Solskjaer, whose Mancunian twang (inflected through 11 seasons as a United player) adds a vernacular flavour to his press conferences. He has undoubtedly helped relieve the toxic atmosphere created by his predecessor, who was prone to undignified media outbursts and publicly criticising players, and whose proclivity for defensive football was at odds with United’s attacking tradition. It’s fair to say that in five months, Solskjaer has gone a long way towards righting some of those wrongs.
But the former Cardiff City boss still represents a huge gamble for United, while the idea that his style of football is radically different to Mourinho’s is something of a misnomer. In the high-profile fixtures Solskjaer has overseen, he has set the team up cautiously, with a view to scoring on the counter. This only slightly diverges from Mourinho’s approach, but United have tended to get better results when Solskjaer has opted for these tactics.
In the 3-1 away victory at Paris Saint-Germain in the second leg of the Champions League last-16 tie, United won with just 28 per cent of possession, zero corners and five shots on goal. In their 1-0 Premier League victory over Tottenham, United had three shots on target. In the league game against Liverpool, United drew 0-0, again managing just three shots on target. Against the smaller sides, such as Fulham and Bournemouth, Solskjaer’s United have been more dominant, but that should be expected of a squad that cost roughly £400m to assemble.
Yet it would be imprudent to suggest that Solskjaer has done anything but a good job so far. He has boosted morale among a playing staff previously lacking in confidence, and has leveraged his pre-existing popularity within the United fan base to engage with the terraces to a measure that Mourinho did not appear to think necessary. Where Mourinho seemed to like reminding fans of his own achievements and how lucky they were to have him, Solskjaer has spoken constantly about a “culture” at United that he appreciates and understands.
As unfair as it would be to write off Solskjaer’s long-term credentials based on his relatively modest CV – winning two Norwegian league titles with Molde is countered by relegation with Cardiff – it would be similarly misguided to inflate the feat of his early results. These include a humbling 2-0 defeat at Arsenal and a 2-1 reverse against Wolverhampton Wanderers in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.
Good PR can only do so much; it will take at least one full season at United to better understand Solskjaer’s capabilities as a tactician and in the transfer market.
History elsewhere, meanwhile, tells us that appointing club legends as managers is a risky business anyway. Zinedine Zidane represents a success story at Real Madrid, but Alan Shearer’s appointment at Newcastle should be viewed as a boardroom blunder.
Solskjaer’s standing with United fans from his playing days will afford him a degree of patience and empathy that Mourinho did not enjoy, but that will only stretch so far if United’s form tails off much more than three defeats in 14.
Football is a sport defined by fine margins. Solskjaer knows this fact better than most. Manchester United’s treble in 1999 could have easily never happened. What if Arsenal hadn’t lost to Leeds in the penultimate game of the league season? What if Dennis Bergkamp hadn’t missed that penalty in the FA Cup semi-finals? What if, with United having been 1-0 down for 90 minutes, Teddy Sheringham had never equalised against Bayern? What if Solskjaer had never scored himself? Clinical finishing, as in United’s win at PSG, can mask defensive performances. But if it didn’t, would Solskjaer have faced the same criticism as Mourinho?
Solskjaer also faces a new kind of pressure in player trading – on a level he has never before encountered. Though replete with expensive signings, United’s squad still has deficiencies and needs revamping. Solskjaer must prove he can buy and sell at the upper end of the market, making cut-throat decisions that will have consequences for both himself and the club, especially if he decides on a sale that the rest of the squad don’t agree with.
Solskjaer may become a very successful manager at United, but it would be naïve to suggest that he was ever the club’s first choice. His appointment has a feel-good factor, yet it is likely the result of other targets not being viable. And while that will suit Solskjaer fine – he loves Manchester United and will relish the opportunity – there is no escaping the reality of his inexperience in top-level management.
With the stakes so high in the moneyed Premier League, it’s an open question whether United, who have sacked three managers in six years since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, will give Solskjaer the time he needs to cut his teeth.