Manchester United’s season started in the worst possible way with a humiliating defeat to Liverpool. However, their fortunes have changed since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over as manager and the club sit second in the Premier League table.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been the manager of Manchester United for almost three years, taking over from Jose Mourinho as a caretaker in late December 2018 before being hired permanently in March 2019. There have been some remarkable runs of form, such as winning 14 of his first 19 matches in charge, as well as some even more stunning failures, such as three semifinal exits in 2019-20 (Carabao Cup, FA Cup, Europa League), as well as their Champions League group stage exit and a humiliating penalty shootout defeat in the Europa League final last season.
The Mourinho era was controversial, but it did bring trophies back to United, something Solskjaer has yet to do. Their Premier League drought has persisted (last title: 2012-13), and they haven’t won a major trophy since the Europa League in 2016-17.
Solskjaer has since rebuilt this team and been handed the top players he’s wanted — last summer, Cristiano Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho, and Raphael Varane all returned to the club he left in 2009 — but the same issues persist. Is Solskjaer the ideal guy to bring this group of brilliant people together into a successful collective?
We examine Solskjaer the coach, Solskjaer the motivator, and Solskjaer the strategist ahead of a string of crucial games for United, including two Champions League matches against Atalanta and league matches against Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, and Manchester City in the next three weeks alone. Is he capable of restoring this once-proud club to its former glory?
Defining Solskjaer as a manager | Solskjaer as a tactician | Managing the team | Issues Solskjaer must address | Is he the right guy for Manchester United?
What distinguishes Solskjaer as a coach?
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was asked to summarize himself as Manchester United manager in three words during a televised interview in early 2020. In response, he offered 171, meandering to a conclusion that left the spectator in the dark about his defining traits.
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“I don’t have to have the last word on everything,” Solskjaer said, adding that he is a “club guy” who is “transparent and honest with the players.” Beyond that, there was nothing that went to the heart of what makes Solskjaer tick as a football manager, but when polling people in the game who have worked with or against the Norwegian, the answer is consistent.
The common opinion is that Solskjaer is “vanilla” in nature: safe, unadventurous, dependable, boring, and predictable. It’s a stark contrast to his predecessor at United, Jose Mourinho, whose quiet demeanor was instrumental in calming the ship and reducing tensions among the team during his first months at Old Trafford. But, nearly three years later, does Solskjaer’s calm and unobtrusive demeanor risk becoming a liability for his team?
“The overwhelming majority of his team likes and respects Ole,” a source told ESPN. “He’s also excellent with the club’s personnel, but the team has progressed since he came, and the players now need and want to be pushed harder.”
“He’s a nice person, but he’s not a [Jurgen] Klopp or a [Pep] Guardiola, and you’re getting to the stage where the best players will expect the sort of leadership and decisiveness that they provide for Liverpool and Manchester City.”
But, as a manager, who is Solskjaer? Former managers and coaches such as Steve McClaren, Carlos Queiroz, and Norwegians Egil Olsen and Aage Hareide have been mentioned as significant inspirations in the past, but Sir Alex Ferguson has remained a prominent role in Solskjaer’s football development. Although he still calls to Ferguson as “the gaffer” and seems respectful to him, his managerial characteristics do not like those of his mentor, whose confidence of tactics and selection characterized his 27-year tenure at Old Trafford.
Solskjaer made the big decision to let Romelu Lukaku leave United in 2019 to make room for Mason Greenwood to develop in the first team, but he’s avoided making firm decisions on his goalkeeper since then, regularly rotating David de Gea and Dean Henderson last season, and leaving question marks over the futures of Donny van de Beek, Jesse Lingard, and Anthony Martial without providing any kind of public explanation.
According to reports, Solskjaer has a strong connection with Paul Pogba, which dates back to when he was in charge of United’s reserve squad under Ferguson. Solskjaer also gets along well with Cristiano Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes, with insiders citing his lack of ego as a key element in the dressing room’s harmony. However, others view Ronaldo’s return to the club as a major test of Solskjaer’s strategy and managerial abilities. Ronaldo, according to ESPN, has seen the need for the ball to be pushed forward more rapidly; how Solskjaer implements this will be a fascinating sub-plot.
If he can change United’s style of play to allow that, he will impress his star player and help his side score more goals. But if Solskjaer can’t or won’t find a solution, he’ll have to assert his authority by arguing that his method is the best. It remains to be seen whether he has what it takes to be the dominating, decisive leader that every successful team need. ‘Mark Ogden’
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They have yet to face any of Liverpool, Chelsea, or Manchester City in Premier League action, yet they are still in sixth position after eight games, five points behind first. The fact that they’re taking more shots than usual may be due to Ronaldo’s presence, but as is the case with teams who use Ronaldo, their pressing options have been restricted, which could be a factor for why they’re also allowing more shots. Only one point has been earned in their previous three Premier League games.
Aside from that change, many of the problems that have dogged Solskjaer’s tenure have raised their ugly heads again this autumn. Of course, a victory against Liverpool on Sunday would quickly alter the attitude. Bill Connelly’s quote
What is Solskjaer’s approach to the team?
Whether you ask Ole Gunnar Solskjaer if he thinks he’s good enough to manage one of the world’s greatest clubs, he’ll probably say he has no idea. He will argue, though, that he understands what it takes to be Manchester United’s manager, and that the two roles are distinct in his view.
Solskjaer is well aware that a track record as a reserve team manager, a relegation with Cardiff City, and two stints with Molde in Norway would not normally be enough to get the top job at Old Trafford. Instead, he’s spent his time at United focusing on being “the proper fit,” something David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, and Jose Mourinho have all shown they aren’t. Solskjaer will admit that things haven’t always gone according to plan, but he is certain that he has always attempted to handle himself — and his squad — in a professional manner.
It began the day he was named Mourinho’s replacement and ended with a visit to the club’s Christmas party after a hectic 24 hours. The gloomy clouds that had collected towards the end of Mourinho’s tenure were immediately lifted as he made a brief speech and even went on the dance floor. Rather than sitting at the official coaches’ table at mealtimes, he’s made a point of joining his squad in the cafeteria at Carrington or in the team hotels, and he’s frequently seen casually talking with the first players out of the dressing room before training sessions. He also opens doors for Carrington employees crossing the hallways, and visitors to his office may frequently find him preparing tea or coffee.
Solskjaer considers himself more of a manager than a coach. Although several senior players, both past and present, have expressed reservations about how training sessions are planned and executed, Solskjaer has always supported the squad around him.
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Midfield was highlighted as a position to improve before the summer transfer season, but both Solskjaer and the recruitment department agreed that a winger and a centre-back should be the club’s top priorities. It will most likely be revisited next summer.
Sancho and Ronaldo, two of the players who arrived in the summer, are also taking their time to settle in. Ronaldo has been chastised for his lack of pressing, which is something Solskjaer wants to change, but United knew precisely what they were getting when they bought him. Last season, he was the least effective presser in Serie A, and United aren’t too worried with his running numbers since he’s in the squad to score goals.
Sancho, on the other hand, is a different story. According to ESPN, his delayed start at United was due to an injury that hindered his time with England at the Euros. Because of Solskjaer’s desire to retain Greenwood on the right after his excellent start to the season, Sancho has often been moved to the left. In Solskjaer’s opinion, it is still a work in progress. Dawson’s words
Is Solskjaer the right guy to lead this squad to victory?
Solskjaer has steered United as far as his coaching skills will allow. Since taking over for Jose Mourinho, he has provided peace and stability to the club, as well as overseeing a squad reconstruction that has placed the team in a position to succeed. United, on the other hand, are in a similar position to Chelsea under Frank Lampard last season. They have a club legend in charge, who has done an excellent job in a tough situation, but it is time for a world-class coach to lead the squad to the next level.
Chelsea’s decision to replace Lampard with Thomas Tuchel was harsh and determined, and it paid off brilliantly. It remains to be seen if the United leadership has the vision and desire to make a comparable transformation. Ogden, Utah
Sure, given an unlimited amount of time. Ferguson, after all, didn’t win his first domestic competition until his fourth season, and his first league championship didn’t come until his eighth. But Solskjaer will not have an unlimited amount of time, and there has been no indication that the club will provide him with the components he needs (read: more world-class midfielders) or that he would adapt his style to suit the team he has. As a result, no. — Sean Connelly
Solskjaer has supervised enough improvement to earn a chance to show he can lead United to greater heights. That may be beyond him, but absent a complete meltdown, he deserves a chance to show he’s capable.
United has attempted short-term solutions previously and failed; the club will not rush to tear up the strategy and start over due to a rocky start. If there was a clear, available candidate who was the perfect match for what United has begun under Solskjaer, things could be different, but there isn’t. Dawson’s words