Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has had an array of mixed reviews as Manchester United manager. Since his permanent appointment in March 2019, United have both struggled and thrived in a rollercoaster 16 months. Despite some low points this campaign, Solskjaer led his side into a third-place Premier League finish. At the end of his first full campaign, the Norwegian still has plenty of doubters. Join us at Last Word on Football as we assess Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as Manchester United boss.
Rating Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as Manchester United Boss
An Improved Culture
When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer arrived at Old Trafford in December 2018, the situation was bleak. United sacked a disillusioned Jose Mourinho after a damning 3-1 defeat to rivals Liverpool. The mood around the club was tense, angered, and searching for answers.
The answer came in the form of Solskjaer. Within a week of that resigned defeat, United destroyed Cardiff City 5-1 away from home. For months, United played a weary, defensive style of football. Solskjaer immediately played to his player’s strengths as an attacking unit and it paid off.
Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial, and Marcus Rashford were heavily linked with moves away. Under Solskjaer they are visibly enjoying their football much more. Recent high scoring victories over Sheffield United, Brighton and Hove Albion, and Bournemouth are a testament to how much the attacking players are thriving.
Keeping the players motivated is key to Solskjaer’s philosophy, and having the right attitudes from his players is his biggest expectation. In his first summer transfer window, Solskjaer offed the disinterested Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez to Inter Milan. Allowing two high profile names was a risk, but a calculated risk for the boss who wanted to stamp his authority on the side.
As part of improving the culture of the club, Solskjaer undertook background checks of all the players he signed. He spoke to youth coaches and teammates of both Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire before splashing £130million on their signatures. He wants to make sure the right characters are around the squad as well as the right quality.
Questionable Squad Selection
One big criticism of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tenure at Manchester United is his ability to utilise his squad. Indeed, some games his team selection is questionable, especially when it comes to utilising his best players.
For example, Bruno Fernandes looked tired in the final Premier League game against Leicester City. There have been opportunities to rest United’s talisman in recent weeks, such as the FA Cup victory over Norwich City. Many other first-team players were rested, however, Bruno Fernandes played the majority of the tie.
Another example of strange team selection occurred in the FA Cup semi-final defeat to Chelsea. Paul Pogba started the game on the bench, despite being one of Manchester United’s most talented players. An FA Cup semi-final should not be the time to rotate out a key player.
Midfielders Scott McTominay and Fred have suffered in recent weeks. The return of Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic has shifted the pair out of the midfield. Rightfully so, as United embarked on a lengthy unbeaten run in the league. However, an ageing Matic may not have the legs to start two games per week, especially next season, meaning Ole Gunnar Solskjaer must be more prepared to rotate his squad.
With Jadon Sancho supposedly ready to sign for Manchester United this summer, rotation up-front is key. Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Mason Greenwood, Jadon Sancho, Odion Ighalo, and Daniel James are battling for three spaces dictate that Solskjaer’s methods of keeping things fresh must rapidly improve.
A Master of Big Games
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is an expert at winning big games at Manchester United. Despite sometimes unable to defeat low-blocks, they certainly know how to beat the big boys.
In 21 meetings with the traditional “Top Six” clubs in England, Solskjaer is unbeaten in 71% of those meetings. United won ten, drew five, and lost six of those encounters.
The timing of some of these victories is the most impressive. In December 2019, after a tricky run of results, United faced Tottenham and Manchester City. They defeated Tottenham 2-0 and beat City 2-1 in a defining week for Solskjaer.
The United boss has impressive records against both Manchester City and Chelsea, beating both sides three times this campaign. Their counter-attacking system got the better of the possession-based styles of the opposite managers.
Manchester United’s big game form is particularly helpful in cup competition. Who could forget the infamous 3-1 Champions League turnaround away at PSG? United players and coaches will hope to use this as inspiration to build a successful return to the competition next season.
Besides, it should aid United’s chances in the Europa League. With potential ties with Roma, Sevilla, and Inter Milan further in the competition, Solskjaer must be tactically astute to get his side over the line.
An Impressive League Finish
At times this season, United looked hopeless. In games they should be winning, they haven’t been able to get over the line, and instead, lose the game in lacklustre fashion. Defeats at home to Burnley and away to Newcastle, Bournemouth and West Ham United are all examples of the worst of Solskjaer’s side.
After the Burnley defeat, Manchester United were 14 points behind Leicester in third place. So to claw back that huge points gap is an impressive feat. It takes guts and character in the dressing room to dust down after disappointment to achieve a team’s aims. The culture and atmosphere that Solskjaer has built is the driving force behind this resurgence. That – and the signing of Bruno Fernandes.
The Portuguese scored eight goals and provided seven more in fourteen appearances as he inspired United’s emphatic form. He has allowed United’s tactical approach to change from a counter-attacking style to more of a possession-based one. If more signings like him are made, United will head in the right direction.
How Successful Has Solskjaer Been?
To summarise, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has fulfilled the target of the season. His primary aim was to get Manchester United back into the Champions League – and he has done just that.
The football hasn’t been great at times. The points tally hasn’t improved on last season. These points are true. And Manchester United should not celebrate being in the Champions League, that should be a given. But Solskjaer walked into a club that was ripped apart by a chaotic few years. His first full season is the first step to right the wrongs of the last seven years.
Young players are given a chance, just look at the rise of Mason Greenwood. His ten Premier League goals were decisive in the successes of the campaign, and signal Solskjaer’s willingness to play attacking football.
The season will be labelled a resounding success if Manchester United manage to win the Europa League next month. If not, Solskjaer has hit the expectations of the board. Whichever outcome occurs, the United boss has laid down the foundations for a much more successful future at Old Trafford.