On the 19th of December 2018, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer became the interim manager of Manchester United following the contentious sacking of Jose Mourinho after a 3-1 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield. During this time, Ole has had his critics, especially after the drop in form following the sensational Paris comeback. He remains “under threat” after any points dropped by his side. Even when United win, often it is insufficient to snuff out the rumours for good. Ole In, Ole Out it changes after every result for some. Some have been consistent either way since the beginning but which side is on top? While he has made mistakes and got things wrong the things he has done so much right and made the club better to such a degree there should be no doubt over his job.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer: 2018/19 Campaign
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer returned to Old Trafford as interim manager. He was given a squad low in morale and even lower in the table with a 19 point gap from first and 11 away from the top four. At the time I did say it would be a massive feat for any manager to make up such a massive gap and while I was right, there remained plenty to celebrate. In a short time, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer transformed the team into a side brimming with confidence, passion and attacking intent. He became the first manager to put 5 or more past a Premier League side since Sir Alex retired in just his first game. A statement that remains the same throughout his tenure. Players whose form faltered under Mourinho sky-rocketed with most notably, Pogba, Rashford, Matic and Lukaku all shining in United’s excellent run of 19 games and 14 wins.
The Highest Peak and the Lowest Fall
Manchester United took on Paris Saint-Germain and blew them away in their own backyard as Rashford and Lukaku’s goals claimed victory. It seemed a massive moment for United and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as he was rewarded with the permanent role during the international break that followed. However the drop United suffered was beyond imagination and the fans were beyond despair. The attacking play failed to impress and the defending and individual errors piled up in a shambolic finish to the season. On the back of a 4-0 defeat at Goodison Park, Ole made a massive statement to the press. He said “I’m gonna be successful here. And there are players here that won’t be part of that success.”
It was clear that many fans turned on the players after the disgraceful end to the season, including a 0-2 loss to Cardiff on the final day at Old Trafford. However there remained a large group who turned on the manager. Claiming he did not know how to manage such a club and that his lack of experience and silverware as a manager deemed him unworthy of the role. The season was severely damaged by the defensive horrors all season long but there was a sense that things would change if Ole were given time but many remained furious that he remained at the helm. At the time for myself, I wanted Ole to be given time to get his players in and more importantly, get players out and create a far less toxic dressing room that had been rotting for some time.
2018/19: The Stats and Conclusion
When Ole Took Over:
Premier League: P17, W7, D5, L5, GF 29, GA 29, GD 0 PTS 26
Champions League: W3 D1 L2, GF 7, GA 4, GD +3
Carabao Cup: Knocked Out on penalties to Derby County
Players such as Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and more had been publicly criticised and not constant fixtures in the side. The manager was rightfully furious at not being backed in the summer and it had an effect on the team’s morale and their performances.
During Ole’s Reign:
Premier League: P21: W12, D4, L5, GF 36, GA 25, GD +11, PTS 40
Champions League: Knocked out in QFs by Barcelona 4-0 on aggregate
FA Cup: Beat Reading, Arsenal and Chelsea away but lost away to Wolves 2-1 in the QFs.
Manchester United clearly finished the season on a seriously low note. However there is plenty to praise. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer brought in a philosophy of playing attacking football either in possession or on the counter, for the players to be the hardest working side in the league and to play for the badge. We can see the improvements he made for Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba specifically as both clearly shone when the Norwegian took over. There were clearly issues in the defence and United needed to totally overhaul for the next season. Which included removing players that did not want to play for the badge.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer: 2019/20 Campaign
This began with an excellent preseason and a chance to get players in that were part of Ole’s philosophy and remove any who did not want to play for the club. While many rumours circled Pogba’s departure, the Frenchman stayed while others left. Lukaku and Sanchez secured moves to Inter Milan while Smalling and Darmian left for Roma (loan) and Parma. Antonio Valencia was released to L.D.U Quito while Herrera secured a contract at PSG.
It was clear that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wanted at least five players in his team rehaul but managed to secure three in the Summer. A low-risk, high-reward purchase of Daniel James from Swansea gave United width, pace and at points, some quality with four goals and six assists that season. Aaron Wan-Bissaka came in to establish himself as the starting right back and has improved on every aspect of his game in his United career so far. Harry Maguire became the marquee signing for Ole’s first Summer Window. A staggering £80m was the take-it-or-leave-it offer from Leicester and after a year of contemplation (not to mention a £20m price rise), Maguire finally secured the number 5 for United. He, along with Wan-Bissaka substantially secured the leaky defence from last season as United 25 goals fewer in the league. Keeping the most clean sheets in Europe that season (in all competitions).
The Yo-yo Results Begin
Manchester United had an indifferent start to the season. As they fielded one of the youngest sides in the League and with a huge injury crisis during the season, results dropped. United recorded one of their worst starts of the season. Things looked dark after back-to-back defeats to West Ham and Newcastle and the manager’s job looked a fragile position. A far better performance against league leaders Liverpool boosted morale. However the late equaliser from Lallana mirrored United’s pre-Bruno form. One step forward, one step back. Massive wins against Spurs and City back-to-back were encircled with poor draws. One to relegation candidates, Villa and rudderless Everton. Once again, United slipped to bottom side Watford but regrouped with wins against Newcastle and Burnley.
Top Four going into January was a massive ask and a 2-0 defeat to Arsenal certainly failed to help. Another set of injuries cost United the Carabao Cup Semi-Final and back-to-back losses to Liverpool and Burnley piled on the pressure. It could not have been worse for United. Six points off the top four and 26 off first looked a dire situation. Especially with both Spurs and Wolves level on points with United. United needed a signing and soon.
Incoming Bruno Fernandes (and Ighalo)
Manchester United made two signings on Deadline Day in January. Bruno Fernandes joined for £46m from Sporting and Odion Ighalo joined on loan from Shanghai. It seemed clear Ighalo was a backup option to rest Martial but Fernandes was clearly a starting player. He shone as United, both pre and post-lockdown remained unbeaten in their last 14 League games. United won 32 points from a possible 42. Winning 9 and drawing 5, scoring 30 goals and conceding just 7. It was a stunning end to the season with exemplary wins against Chelsea, Sheffield United and emphatically against City.
While individual errors cost Manchester United in the FA Cup Semi-Final, United secured Champions League football against Leicester City on the final day. A trademark Bruno Fernandes penalty and a Lingard sealer won the game. United finished above Chelsea and Leicester in third. Ending the season on such a high note after a disastrous start. The extended Europa League mini-competition proved a difficult one to finish chances. While United rode their luck against LASK and Copenhagen, Sevilla punished them and inevitably won the competition.
2019/20 Stats and Conclusion:
The Season Before (Jose + Ole):
P: 38 (17 + 21)
W19 (7 + 12)
D9 (5 + 4)
L10 (5 + 5)
GF 65 (29 + 36)
GA 54 (29 + 25)
Points Tally: 66 (26+40)
Cup Competitions: Champions League QF, FA Cup QF, (Already knocked out of the Carabao Cup)
The 2019/20 Season:
Points Tally: 66
Cup Competitions: Europa League SF, FA Cup SF, Carabao Cup SF
Overall you can clearly see the progress. The aim to win trophies is clearly there and while they did fail and the penultimate hurdle, it is clear there is progress from the season before. The biggest concern from the season before remained the leaky defence. United shored up their backline but failed to fully remove individual errors which cost them a lot of goals. Some was due to personnel as a result of injuries, others were due to reasons I still cannot understand.
The consistency in the team remains a massive concern, something (ironically) consistent with young sides which this United side certainly is. The number of goals under Ole has continued to be vast as the expansive and attacking football United play has been a joy to watch. When the season finished, I thought Ole had taken a massive step in the right direction but more work needed to be done. He has improved the dressing room, the morale and the football. He needed the summer to be properly backed if United are to improve and mount serious trophy challenges.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer: 2020/21 Campaign
Another Negligent Window under Woodward
I am still furious at this. The manner in which United conducted themselves over this Transfer Window was horrific. Regardless of COVID, Manchester United remained one of the richest clubs around. While their profits had dipped a significant degree, there remained £400m+ in which United could have properly backed Ole. Reports seemed to clarify the manager’s main targets as Dayot Upamecano, Jack Grealish and, of course, Jadon Sancho. Of course there were some things that needed to happen first.
Players In and Out :
Alexis Sanchez parted ways with United and three others joined him in the Serie A during the summer. Smalling rejoined Roma for a fee around £15m and Dalot and Pereira joined Milan and Lazio respectively on 1 year loan deals. Rumours of a Pogba contract circled instead of the almost-routine links to Madrid and Juventus but nothing materialised either way.
United refused to pay the £80m Villa wanted for Grealish, banking on a lower price if they were relegated. United went to their second choice, Donny van de Beek. Clearly a quality player in the Ajax system and a versatile player too. The deal was concluded so quickly, it got United fans thinking we may do some good business for once. However the complications with the Reguilon and Dembele deals failed to impress fans as the finger pointed at Woodward once again. The Sancho deal continued to frustrate and worry fans that we would fail to get him again. And they failed to get it done.
United finally did some decent business on deadline day as Alex Telles, Edinson Cavani and Facundo Pellistri were all secured. Two were experienced professionals who know how to win leagues and offer good competition in the squad. The other, a youngster with plenty of potential and time to improve. United also secured a January transfer for Amad Diallo for £23m + £14m in add ons but it remains to be seen which side he will play for.
Mitigating Circumstances ignored by critics as United’s season starts awfully:
So many things went wrong this summer. COVID the main cause but others of serious worry for the players and manager alike. Regardless of not being backed in the summer, Ole had more problems to deal with. The Europa League denied the players a full rest and pre-season going into the campaign. Even with the extra matchday off, United only managed one friendly game against Aston Villa. The fact that just a week before the season started, half the team went off to play in the Nations League is beyond negligent from UEFA. It’s club and country in that order for a reason. Even with this, the issues surrounding the issues in Greece and Iceland certainly cast a shadow over the start of the season.
The first three games clearly showed a lack of fitness and while you can pardon the loss to Palace who had the whole summer to prepare and can even commend how they fought back against Brighton, so much about the Tottenham game went wrong. I get that you can argue with ten men it becomes difficult but it was only 1-2 then. There’s no way United should have capitulated the way they did. The red card was unfairly dealt with one way or another but the errors and sluggishness was exposed by a much fitter side. They had just battered Southampton 5-2 and were equally merciless at Old Trafford.
The Team Clicking Again:
The result hit harder because of another 10 day international break and things looked even worse with difficult games to come afterwards. Ole looked on the precipice of a dismissal and many fans and pundits called for it. Ole went back to his basic spine of Maguire, Lindelof and McFred against Newcastle and PSG. Two back-to-back away wins that made a massive statement. A draw with Chelsea was frustrating and the critics returned but so did the attacking prowess of the team as they battered Leipzig 5-0. Things looked on the rise but back-to-back defeats to Arsenal and Basaksehir showed the team struggled at home and failed to focus in the early stages away.
Once again there were calls for Solskjaer’s job and going to a revitalised Goodison Park could have posed a dangerous place for the manager. The team went a goal behind but bounced back to win 3-1 with goals from Fernandes and Cavani. Ole brought something to his game we have not seen as he was openly furious at United’s tricky fixture list. “We were set up to fail.”
A damning indictment on the scheduling these teams face and once again will have it with an 8pm KO against Everton on Wednesday and a 12:30am against Leicester on Boxing Day.
Criticism Remains. Justified?
The Premier League form never faltered and at the time of writing, United have won 19 out of a possible 21 in the league. They have the best away form of any team right now with a record-breaking 10 away wins in a row. The only points dropped were at home to City in a drab 0-0. However Ole remains criticised and a lot of that is due to the Champions League. Arguably this is about the fairest criticism Ole has had to date.
This was a bad decline as United only needed a point from their remaining two games. United failed to win against PSG as they spurned numerous chances at 1-1 and Fred was sent off at 2-1. Against Leipzig, I would argue the tactics were wrong and that does come down to Ole. It was a serious low and the first time since 2015 that United bowed out of a European competition in the group stages. It is fine to be critical when things go wrong when mistakes and poor decisions are made. But to do so regardless of the results and context is far beyond reasonable. It’s an agenda. United have played brilliantly at times this season but consistency is clearly missing and needs solving fast.
2020/21 So Far:
Manchester United are third in the league with a game in hand. If they are to win that they would be second and just two points off Liverpool who they are yet to play. There is still plenty of games to play and United remain in all four competitions. The team has a chance to progress in the Carabao Cup with another away trip to Everton and have enough depth and quality to do so. The away game to Leicester will make a statement about the title race one way or another. United have scored more than all the other teams bar Liverpool.
This team has shown both attacking magnificence and defensive solidity. Admittedly less often in the same matches. Regardless, it is clear that Solskjaer has built a team to fit his philosophy. Ole has once again cleared players who did not want to be there and managed to bring in quality players despite the negligence of those above him. He has pushed this team to third place despite the awful start and no pre-season.
Through the pain and joy over the last couple of years, undeniably the good outweighs the bad. Ole is building something special with this team. It is clear for all those who choose to see it. Criticism can be rightfully given but credit must be equally given to Solskjaer to do as well as he has. Even when no one gave him a chance at the beginning and certainly at the end of the 18/19 season.
There is still plenty to do and trophies must be won for it to be but so far, it would be undeniable that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has transformed this United team. The mentality, the character, the players and the philosophy. The basic principles of any football club let alone Manchester United! Ole has improved them all. A massive job that cannot be understated.