It is now a year since Manchester United decided to party like it was 1999 and appoint Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on a permanent basis. The hope was that by confronting the future with the past and pressing a big red button marked ‘cultural reset’, the post-Sir Alex Ferguson malaise would be brought to a gradual but definite end and those simpler, more successful times would return.
So, twelve months later, while putting aside the coronavirus pandemic and its effects on world football, let’s take stock. United sat fifth in the Premier League table before the season’s suspension, which turns out to be exactly where they were on this day last year. They have 13 fewer points than they did from the same number of games, despite players privately confiding that last season was the most difficult of their careers. This is still the club’s worst 29-game start to a season post-1992.
Solskjaer has been more successful in the cups, reaching the quarter-finals of the FA Cup and – essentially – the Europa League. There is a fair chance of them winning one or both competitions, assuming they are ever completed. But United ultimately failed to qualify for the Champions League last year and, as it stands, whether they return next season is more likely to depend on events in a Lausanne courtroom than results out on the pitch.
Overall, it is a decidedly mixed bag at best. And yet, there is more optimism around Solskjaer now than at any point over the past year. At the end of January, Burnley’s first win at Old Trafford in 58 years threatened to send United’s season into a tailspin. Instead, they won eight and lost none of their next 11 games. They have scored 29 goals, conceded only two, kept nine clean sheets and have mostly played with the style and verve which is expected. Solskjaer deserves immense credit for that.
And when things are going this well, it is easy to see why hiring him was such an alluring idea. The ‘cultural reset’ element is often ridiculed but he unquestionably fits the club’s self-image. At the time of his appointment last March, senior club figures said speaking to him was like talking to Sir Alex Ferguson, Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney rolled up into one, such was his understanding of what was required in order to “be United again”.
Solskjaer was viewed by the club hierarchy as a risk-taker with his top button done up: just as insistent on a faster, more direct and adventurous style of play as he was on traditional, somewhat conservative values like players travelling to games in a suit and tie. United’s time-honoured policy of promoting youth has been restored under his management, with Brandon Williams the most surprising and successful graduate in that regard. And most importantly, Solskjaer’s best victories – like at the Etihad in December – have been thrilling Ferguson-esque throwbacks.
Even his critics believe he is likely to leave United in a better state than he found them. A host of ageing players and others with little left to give have been shown the door. Their replacements have been successful, by and large, with Bruno Fernandes revelatory since his arrival in January and Aaron Wan-Bissaka the best of the summer signings.
But there is plenty of room for improvement. The biggest problem Solskjaer’s United have – repeated in these pages ad nauseum – is that they find it difficult to take the initiative and beat opponents who surrender the ball and do not leave space in behind. Since the start of his caretaker spell, United have only won around half of the games in which they have dominated possession (i.e. claimed more than 60% of the ball). Results have picked up in these types of games recently, but defeats like Burnley happen far too often for a side with United’s aspirations.
In normal circumstances, Solskjaer would be about to embark on a long run of league games against this type of team. The run would not just have tested United’s top-four credentials but probably decided whether they play in next season’s Champions League or not. All except one of their six remaining bottom-half opponents had taken points off them already this season. You would not have bet against them doing so again.
There are questions over Solskjaer’s management of his player’s injuries too. Marcus Rashford’s absence has not been truly felt, with Anthony Martial stepping into the breach, but United were nevertheless left facing playing the remainder of the season without their top scorer because Solskjaer felt it safe to risk him in an FA Cup third round replay while he was carrying a back injury. And Rashford is not the only example.
Solskjaer recently hailed Scott McTominay for playing on for a while with “no ligament” in a victory over Newcastle. Paul Pogba replaced him that day, making one of his eight appearances all season, and only his second since playing with an ankle issue in a cup tie against third-tier Rochdale and a draw with Arsenal back in September. For a player whose own United career was hampered by injury, Solskjaer has very few qualms about playing half-fit players.
But ultimately, for all the ups and downs, the setbacks and steps forward, a year on, the biggest question about United’s decision to appoint Solskjaer remains unanswered. Why then?
Why, when his caretaker spell was always set to run until the end of the season, did United not wait and see if the form could be maintained? The decision to appoint was undoubtedly a popular one, and Solskjaer has maintained the support of the fans and the club hierarchy throughout, but would waiting another couple of months have hurt? Why was such urgency necessary?
And would Solskjaer still have been appointed on a full-time basis if he had lost eight of his last 12 games? It would be more reassuring if the answer to that question was yes, as it would suggest the decision was a cold and considered one. But even if his character, personality and philosophy fit United “hand in glove”, as some at the club put it this time last year, it is hard to escape the feeling that his permanent appointment was rushed on the back of a remarkable set of results.
Today, Solskjaer and United find themselves in a strikingly similar position. A short, sharp run of good form has converted many doubters into believers. Like then, there are reasons to be sceptical but he also deserves to be given time, patience and the opportunity to prove that he can build on the progress that United are making. But a year on from his appointment, we are in many ways back where we started, still not sure if that post-Ferguson malaise is any closer to ending.