Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over from Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford two years ago today. Has the experiment of appointing an inexperienced former player worked?
Perhaps the most telling answer to that question – 731 days, around £250m of transfer spending, and 71 league games later – is that the jury is still out on the ex-United forward.
Have United progressed in the time since Jose Mourinho was sacked and Solskjaer brought in?
Only Mourinho has a higher win percentage of any of the four permanent Manchester United managers since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, but only Solskjaer and David Moyes have failed to win silverware during their time in the hot seat – and the latter was only given nine months to do so.
What’s changed under Solskjaer?
As is now being seen at the other end of the country at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the football which pre-dates Solskjaer’s tenure at Old Trafford is often pragmatic, when it works. Mourinho has never been one for the tiki-tika and neither was Louis van Gaal, who has since defended his “boring” style of football, before him.
After years of being entertained by Ferguson’s winners, United’s supporters were never likely to be wedded to either of their styles in the long-term. It was no surprise it was one of the first things Solskjaer set about changing when he took over.
Defensively, United have regained some form of solidity after making Harry Maguire the world’s most-expensive defender to join Aaron Wan-Bissaka in a new-look backline in the summer of 2019, conceding only three goals more than champions Liverpool last season, but it is with the ball where the most pronounced and talked-about changes have been seen.
In the 21 matches Solskjaer oversaw in his first season, his counter-attacking side allowed United to mount six times the number of fast breaks Mourinho’s team had, in only three matches more. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, who had started only 35 league games between them in 2017/18, were now thrust front and centre.
“Manchester United look like the Manchester United of five to 10 years ago,” Gary Neville told Sky Sports less than a month after Solskjaer took over following United’s 1-0 win at Tottenham, their fifth Premier League win in a row. “They have got the counter-attack back.”
They certainly had, but that weapon could only take them so far. 23 months on, United have picked up 2.1 points per game from the 19 matches where they have less of the ball, the sort of tally which could mount a serious title charge. Where they have had more than 50 per cent of possession, that figure drops to 1.71 points per game, and just 25 wins from 52 matches.
- Live football on Sky Sports | Get Sky Sports
- Premier League table | Fixtures | Results
- Sky Sports’ 2 for 1 channel offer
The arrival of Bruno Fernandes in January was meant to fix that issue, and the results suggest it has worked. Since then, United are undefeated when they have had more of the ball, winning 12 and drawing five. But against the big sides, it is not yet proving enough – from four games against Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester City this season, United have only accrued two points, and scored just one goal.
“In the next six to eight months, they have to dominate matches and dominate big games,” Neville told Sky Sports after last weekend’s bore draw with City. “That will be the determining factor for Ole.
They have to start playing as a team and perform. Today was ‘OK’, but it’s not a tactic for Manchester United to win football matches in the long-term or to win titles. All the teams who win titles dominate football matches – dominating possession, being on the front foot and winning big matches. Ole hasn’t got Manchester United there yet and he’s been in the job two years.”
Questions over recruitment
David Gill’s name does not get mentioned regularly when assessing what has changed at Manchester United since Ferguson retired in 2013. But the man who replaced his chief executive, Ed Woodward, has at times been more in the limelight than the four permanent managers he has worked with. That has not changed under the current regime.
Things looked to be taking a turn for the better at first with Solskjaer determined to build the right atmosphere in the club’s dressing room, something which had taken a turn for the worse under Mourinho with sideshows like Paul Pogba’s never-ending transfer saga not doing much to keep the narrative on getting results.
“You have a certain DNA and identity when you play for Manchester United or work for Manchester United, you’ve got to be a certain type of character for me,” Solskjaer said in July of this year, seemingly now with some kind of handle over the way transfer business was conducted at Carrington.
By then the arrivals of Maguire, Wan-Bissaka and Fernandes, to a greater or lesser extent, had appeared to be a step in the right direction. Jadon Sancho could have added to that list this summer, but a botched approach from United over their number-one target was labelled “embarrassing” by Neville – and quickly led to more questions about the club’s approach to signings.
“The Sancho thing is embarrassing. It’s been going on now for fourth months. It’s embarrassing, that,” he told the Off The Ball podcast in October.
“And then to put a bid in that gets rejected; the smart clubs, they have deals sorted behind the scenes, the agents are working hard, club officials are agreed on things and when the bids goes in it gets accepted, it’s done.”
Donny van de Beek, Facundo Pallestri and Amad Diallo look like Solskjaer signings; players with something to prove, on their way up. The kind of players Ferguson would have admired. But how the manager ensures fiascos like the summer-long chase for Sancho do not happen again may be as much of a mystery to him as anyone.
Have United progressed?
United have just three points more than they did after 12 games in 2018/19, only weeks before Mourinho was sacked to signal Solskjaer’s arrival, and though United have only picked up more points to date in two of the seven previous seasons post-Fergie, they are only marginally ahead of where David Moyes sat in the early days of his short Old Trafford career at this juncture.
They have reached three cup semi-finals but are yet to get to go the distance and reach a final since Solskjaer took over, and are now on their longest silverware drought since the 1980s, with their last trophy the Europa League in 2017 under Mourinho.
But without significant gains in terms of points or progression, there is no better time to mount a title charge than in statistically the most open Premier League season in history. If they win their game in hand over those at the top, they will cut the gap to the leaders to two points – only matched since Ferguson’s departure under Louis van Gaal in 2015/16, when a run of one win from the following seven games put paid to any hopes of a serious challenge.
Certainly, another former player thinks silverware will prove make-or-break for the manager.
“I think he has got to get his hands on a trophy,” Roy Keane told Sky Sports after the Manchester derby. “There’s an obsession about getting in the top four, but l think Manchester United should be automatically doing that.
“I think by the end of the season Ole will have been in the job long enough to say do we think he is the man to get Manchester United back to challenging for titles. I still think they are behind Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea. But get your hands on some trophies.”
Two years on, the debate rumbles on over whether Solskjaer is the right man for the job or not. Perhaps in another six months, we will know for sure.