Society teaches us that under-appreciation is a common evil that must simply be lived alongside. Many people do great things for humanity’s evolution without ever gaining the respect they deserve, or at least not until they are long gone. In football, this idea is magnified further than most other walks of life; there are entire positions on the pitch which have existed for decades where players must simply accept that they will go unnoticed, with few headlines and even, in some cases, some unnecessary criticism. Whilst Ole Gunnar Solskjær is not exactly deserving of more credit than he is getting in charge of Manchester United, it is true that his legacy may only become apparent once he departs.
Solskjaer’s reign has real deficiencies, most of which were suggested when he took over from Jose Mourinho, originally on an interim basis, in December 2018. For one, he isn’t experienced enough as a manager. His CV, which includes little more than a couple of spells at his first club, Molde, and a relegation from the Premier League with Cardiff City in 2014, leaves him open to scrutiny when things go badly.
Hiring Sir Alex Ferguson, who had worked wonders with Aberdeen in Scotland and Europe but never tested himself in England, in 1986, set a precedent at Old Trafford; the biggest names wouldn’t always be required and those in charge would be given time.
Those principles were adhered to when Ferguson appointed his own successor in David Moyes back in 2013. It proved a disaster, though, and Moyes was sacked after nine months. Realising that perhaps they needed a bigger name, United opted for Louis van Gaal, who also failed to restore them to their former glory, and then Mourinho.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær came in with the club at a low ebb. Mourinho’s reputation was one for winning, which he did to a degree but in his own, often controversial, way. The playing style wasn’t the typically fast-paced, exciting and attacking brand which became the club’s trademark, youth wasn’t given a chance and the mood around the training ground was extremely bleak.
The Norwegian, a real disciple of Ferguson having played for him during the era which yielded the club’s historic treble in 1999, immediately changed the approach and made younger players, such as Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial as well as the enigmatic Paul Pogba, central to his plans. Winning 10 of his first 12 league games, as well as knocking Paris Saint-Germain out of the Champions League, saw him given the job permanently amid great fanfare and with the blessing of many fans and former teammates.
Nobody can forget Rio Ferdinand’s sweeping declaration on BT Sport that “Man United are back” after the PSG win, during which he quoted the supporters’ terrace chant “Ole’s at the wheel!”
Mauricio Pochettino was at Tottenham Hotspur at the time but heavily linked with the club. His ideals on coaching, moulding young players and embedding a tactical approach full of intensity and verve certainly fit the bill for United. Having transformed Spurs, he had built a worldwide reputation for just this, but United stuck to their guns and appointed Solskjær.
Naturally, as often happens after an initial honeymoon period, the club’s form plateaued and Solskjær hasn’t been able to break the cycle of inconsistency which ultimately cost Moyes, van Gaal and Mourinho their jobs. The Red Devils have intermittently qualified for the Champions League but barely landed a punch in a title race frustratingly dominated by their two greatest rivals, Liverpool and Manchester City.
Something Ole Gunnar Solskjær has done for the club, which the others failed to do, is come up with a plan to realign them with their true identity.
The biggest issue for United is the incompetence of their owners, the Glazer Family, and the CEO, Ed Woodward. Over £1bn has been spent on players since Ferguson retired seven years ago and very few of them arrived with anywhere near the level of forethought that the fiery Scot put into his recruits.
Big names were failing under previous regimes, so Solskjær demanded money only be spent on younger, mainly British players with a point to prove. If someone on the continent who could add something comes available, United would act. It is very much the Ferguson way.
All the signings in the Ole Gunnar Solskjær era have been in that mould and most, bar Harry Maguire, have added either pace or creativity to the team. Mason Greenwood’s triumphant emergence from the academy also showed that the club were keen to promote from within, an aim lost under Mourinho in particular. There are still huge holes in the squad, with some work still to do this summer but at least there seems to be a direction in which the club is going, thanks in no small part to Solskjaer.
The issues still remain with the hierarchy and Woodward, who is up to his old tricks again. Maguire and Bruno Fernandes both arrived after protracted sagas, needlessly driven by his apparent refusal to meet Leicester City and Sporting Lisbon’s valuation before eventually relenting. The very same problem is emerging with Jadon Sancho at Borussia Dortmund. As their number one target, Woodward and Matt Judge, the deal broker, should be acting swiftly to secure Sancho.
It is exactly that attitude which has made Liverpool so successful on and off the pitch lately. The England star is perfect for filling the gaping hole on the right side for Solskjaer, fits the Manchester United profile and isn’t overly expensive, considering his talent and potential, at a reported £108million. Various factors mean that United have a clear run at the deal, which is unlikely to be the case in a year or so. Yet, they are still attempting to play hardball.
Defeat to Crystal Palace on Saturday evening laid bare their issues, particularly in defence, but it also led to more scrutiny on Ole Gunnar Solskjær. With every loss, his lack of experience comes sharply into focus, as does his timid demeanour on the touchline. One thing he perhaps cannot recreate from Ferguson is the sheer force of personality. Van Gaal and Mourinho had it too but refused to incorporate the philosophy of the club.
There will always be question marks over Solskjær’s ability to truly succeed as Manchester United manager. It is hard to back him because there is little evidence that he can be the man to take the club to the top. Pochettino’s availability creates unwanted speculation at every turn, too.
Thanks to Ole Gunnar Solskjær, though, United have a base from which to build again. He may not be the man lifting the trophies but if those days return, he will deserve a huge amount of credit for steering the culture back in line with what went before.
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