Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is overseeing a Manchester United resurgence. We ponder if he has what it takes to make history once again, this time in the managerial hotseat.
“And Solksjaer has won it” – Clive Tylseday
In the rich, well-documented history of Manchester United Football Club, one would be hard-pressed to find a line that would embody the spirit of the club in a better manner.
Spoken, or rather screamed after Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, affectionately called the Baby-Faced Assassin by the United faithful, tapped in a late winner from a David Beckham cross in the dying minutes of the 1999 UEFA Champions League final against Bayern Munich, it ended a 31-year wait for the club to reach the summit of European Football.
It was historic, it was magnificent and barely believable, and it is a feat that 20 years later, Solksjaer would be eager to achieve once again. The start has certainly been a positive one.
Manchester United is a club with a long line of legends; there is no dearth of big names given the stature of the institution. However, since the retirement of the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson, under whom Solksjaer had made such a name, they have struggled and failed to adapt to the changing landscape of the game.
This was epitomized in the best manner by none other than Jose Mourinho, who for more almost two-and-a-half seasons failed to admit that time had passed him by and that he had to give in if he were to stand out again. Following a string of poor results, Mourinho was sacked in December and Solskjaer was appointed as the interim manager for the rest of the season. And boy has that decision paid off so far.
Eight wins in his opening eight games so far have already made Solskjaer the only Manchester United manager ever to achieve this feat. However, it is not so much as the volume of wins as it is the substance and the style of play that has bought a breath of fresh air to the claustrophobic Old Trafford atmosphere.
The leash has been revoked and the goals are coming again, with the players managing to express themselves a lot better. Things look relaxed at the red half of Manchester for the first time since 2013, and that shows on the pitch: 19 goals have been scored so far and only 5 conceded. United are now just 3 points off the top 4, the divide was 11 points before the Norwegian took up his job about a month back.
Solksjaer has been in the managerial circle since 2011 with Molde, and had previously made a foray into the Premier League in 2014 with Cardiff City. That short spell, however, ended in a disaster as the Welsh team was relegated at the end of the season and Solksjaer returned to Molde. His appointment was a bold move and something that was not expected at all, but neither were the results that he has managed to accomplish so far.
Several pundits and former players have attributed Manchester United’s rich vein of form to the fact that Solskjaer has bought back the feel-good factor to the Red Devils, but the reality is that there is much more to that story than that.
United have spread out their gameplay, making it much more expansive than it was under Mourinho. With a 4-3-3 formation in place, the full-backs, Luke Shaw, Diogo Dalot and Ashley Young have made many forays into attack, constantly linking up with the forwards to make life tough for the opposition defence.
Not satisfied with this, Solskjaer has psychologically boosted his entire squad, most notably Paul Pogba who has looked like a completely different player under him. The French midfielder, who made more headlines off the pitch than on it under Mourinho has racked up 4 goals and 5 assists under the interim boss, controlling and directing almost every attack that United have mustered in the new reign.
Solskjaer has had a similar impact on Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku, with the centre-forwards repaying him with goals on the pitch. Of course, Jesse Lingard and Ander Herrera have also had important roles to play, especially the former who has looked like a tireless worker under his new gaffer.
Even David de Gea has looked like a man reborn, his minor early season slump is now a story of the distant past and against Tottenham, he played like a man possessed saving a total of eleven shots in the second half.
The defence is still a little suspect, but it seems Swedish centre-back Victor Lindelof is coming into the fore. Solksjaer has already managed to oversee two wins with clean sheets in tow, a feat that was managed by Mourinho only twice since August.
There has not been a tactical revolution at Manchester United, the likes of which have been preached by Pep Guardiola at Manchester City and Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool. It has rather been a heady, practical approach to the game where the key has been to extract the best out of each player and see where the team ends up as the sum of its parts.
With a UEFA Champions League tie against the mighty Paris Saint-Germain looming large in the Round of 16, it remains to be seen how long Solksjaer’s magic lasts at the Theatre Of Dreams.
All said and done though, as a Manchester United romantic, it would be exceptionally satisfying to see Solksjaer succeed at the helm. He has initiated a change at the behemoth and bought it back to its original roots, obviously helped by the fact that two of his assistants Michael Carrick and Mike Phelan have also worked extensively under and with Sir Alex Ferguson respectively.
It remains to be seen if Manchester United CEO Ed Woodward hands him the job on a permanent basis in the summer, but one can hope that it does come to that. If the Red Devils can secure a top four finish, make it far into the Champions League and win the FA Cup, Solksjaer would probably be in with as good a shout as any.
After all, if Barcelona and Real Madrid can both turn their legendary players into extremely successful managers who won them everything in their first job in management, why should Manchester United be left far behind?