It says everything about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s rollercoaster year as Manchester United’s full-time manager that the coronavirus crisis has come at a bad time for the Norwegian, just weeks after he was begging for the start of the winter break.
The shutdown has halted a run of 11 games unbeaten in all competitions, including 29 goals scored, two conceded, nine clean sheets, two victories over Manchester City and one against Chelsea. In a statement issued to season ticket holders on Friday, United said “the club fully supports the collective intent to complete the Premier League, FA Cup and the UEFA club competitions.” It is because they have much left to play for. But just two months ago that looked unlikely.
At the end of January, Burnley — looking nervously over their shoulder at the relegation places — came to Old Trafford and left with a comfortable 2-0 win. It came three days after a chastising, if expected, 2-0 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield and contributed to a run of five defeats in 10 games. There have been plenty of times when supporters have wished to “end the season now” — particularly after defeats to West Ham and Newcastle, the draw at home to League One Rochdale and another humiliating afternoon at bottom side Watford in December.
Now, though, a year on from his appointment as permanent boss on March 28 2019, Solskjaer is slowly beginning to win them round. If self-interest plays a part, more than half the league could find reason to argue that this season should be declared null and void. United would not be one of them, even if it did mean effectively petitioning for Liverpool to win the title.
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The numbers from Solskjaer’s time in charge at Old Trafford do not really make sense. After taking over from Jose Mourinho in December 2018 as caretaker, he guided United to 14 wins from his first 17 games, only to follow that with a run of just two wins from 12 to end the season. He has masterminded away wins at Manchester City (twice), Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal but has also lost at home to Cardiff, Burnley and Crystal Palace.
Crucially, even during low moments, Solskjaer has kept the majority of players onside. David De Gea went through a disastrous run of form at the end of last season but Solskjaer kept faith. The show of solidarity was a big reason behind the Spain international finally committing his long-term future to the club in September.
While Mourinho would often put pressure on injured players to make themselves available — one first-teamer’s family was once sent scurrying around Miami’s sports shops looking for a pair of boots having been told to abruptly end his holiday to play in a meaningless preseason friendly — Solskjaer has taken the opposite approach. He has been keen to get missing men back but final decisions have been left to the individuals, the idea being that a player who wants to play is far more useful than one who does not.
Solskjaer has taken the same approach with his transfer business. United’s pursuit of Paulo Dybala in the summer was swiftly dropped over concerns the forward was only interested because his future at Juventus looked bleak. Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez were both allowed to leave without being replaced because they did not want to be there. Morale in the squad has been prioritised over everything else. Short-term pain has been deemed worth it for long-term gain.
Privately, United tell scouts and agents they want to sign players who are “respectful, humble, arrogant and have an ‘X factor'” and, under Solskjaer, they have got decisions right. Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Daniel James, Bruno Fernandes and Odion Ighalo have all been successes — a rarity for transfer dealings post-Sir Alex Ferguson. Maguire and Fernandes, in particular, have added much needed leadership in the dressing room. Maguire is already club captain just eight months after his move from Leicester City, while Fernandes has been key in raising standards on the training pitch.
Where last season a sloppy pass might have been met with a shrug at best, it is now greeted with a fierce blast. It is part of the culture Solskjaer is trying to build. Former United defender Rio Ferdinand tells a story about being intimidated during his first United training session despite arriving as the most expensive defender in the world and while Solskjaer has been more relaxed than Mourinho in some areas, he has tried to foster a cut-throat atmosphere on the pitches at Carrington. He is happy for teammates to kick each other in training and arguments over whether a ball was in or out are welcomed rather than frowned upon.
Solskjaer has ruled with an iron fist in a velvet glove. Jesse Lingard has been supported through what has been a difficult year away from football but the United manager has not shied away from difficult decisions and, occasionally, that has meant the England international watching games from the stands. More new players will arrive in the summer — predominantly a revamp of the forward line after improving the defence last year — and Solskjaer is prepared to be ruthless to make room in his squad.
His biggest decision may well be what to do with Paul Pogba. Solskjaer wants the best players at Old Trafford but he is set on building a squad committed to United and will not sacrifice the harmony of the group for an individual.
Solskjaer knows better than most that 11 unbeaten games and fifth in the table does not constitute success at a club the size of United but there are signs, however small, that the plan he has stuck to rigidly is working. A year on from his appointment as permanent boss there is genuine hope he is getting it right. The next step is to turn into something more tangible.