When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was appointed as manager of Manchester United on a permanent basis at the end of March 2019, the club had won 14 of his 19 games in caretaker charge. The dark days of the Jose Mourinho era appeared to be over and we were looking forward to a Champions League quarter-final against Barcelona, after that stunning victory in Paris.
However, since Solskjaer was appointed on a full-time basis, United have not won an away game. The whole ‘Ole’s at the Wheel’ feelgood factor appears to have come to stuttering halt with a poor finish to the 2018/19 season coupled with defeats to Crystal Palace and West Ham, plus the uninspiring draw with Rochdale in the Carabao Cup at the beginning of this campaign…
In my view though, the job Solskjaer is doing at United is the correct one. Since Sir Alex Ferguson retired after winning the 2013 Premier League, the club has been struggling with it’s identity and has been rudderless in both the recruitment and technical departments. The rebuilding job which Ole and his staff, including Mike Phelan, Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna are embarking upon is designed to give us our identity back, while laying the building blocks in place for future success.
The beginning of any rebuild is never going to be easy. The results have shown this. But if you take a step back it becomes clear that there are likely to be indifferent results and performances during this phase. The manager has rightly, in my opinion, tried and succeeded in most cases to shift big-money players out the door who aren’t pulling their weight. Players such as Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Chris Smalling and Matteo Darmian have been shown the exit.
The key for Solskjaer and his staff is creating the right culture around the club and in the dressing room. By removing those the club feel won’t contribute to this is a good start. I’m sure that more of this ilk are likely to leave over the coming windows including Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo (who nearly left this summer) and Nemanja Matic. But finding suitors for players on big contracts isn’t always easy, and thus the player, and their agent are likely to want to sit on the money their currently earning.
The recruitment this Summer was massively encouraging. The signings of Aaron Wan-Bissaka from Crystal Palace, Harry Maguire from Leicester and Dan James from Swansea all fit the profile of young, hungry, British players who know the League or the British game. They also possess the right characteristics and potential leadership qualities that the staff believe are missing.
Since Ferguson retired, the recruitment has been shambolic. First David Moyes was denied the signings he wanted and had to make do with Marouane Fellaini until the winter window. Then Louis van Gaal also claimed he wasn’t allowed to sign some of his targets, including Sadio Mane then of Southampton. Those that were recruited, bar Anthony Martial were simply just not good enough; with the vast majority having since left Old Trafford.
With regards to Jose Mourinho, to begin with all looked well. He brought in Eric Bailly, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba. The latter two certainly being given the seal of approval by the board for their commercial appeal. It seemed Jose was looking to add leaders to the dressing room. The following summer, Victor Lindelof, Nemanja Matic and Romelu Lukaku joined to build on the previous seasons Europa League success and it appeared a spine was being built. That second season started well, but defeat to City before Christmas began to ring alarm bells and the ill-fated Alexis Sanchez transfer was completed, probably partly agreed by Mourinho and partly to satisfy the commercial side of the club.
Following this, Jose was then apparently denied the players he wanted with Fred and Lee Grant coming to the club. At this point, the atmosphere within the dressing room seemed to be at rock bottom. The players and Jose fell out, thus leading to Solskjaer getting the temporary gig. One of the first things the Baby Faced Assassin did was try to get the identity back by bringing in Phelan as his number 2 and analysing who was willing to sacrifice themselves for the club and who was not. He got a lot of answers during the drab defeat at Goodison Park…
Solskjaer has seen enough of the players at the club and how they react when times are good & bad to know who fits his vision & who doesn’t. When appointed he made it clear to the club that we need to get our identity back to get back to the top. This will take time, and it seems the board have bought into the vision. The whole rebuild in both personnel and thus playing style cannot be done in just one summer window. The 3 signings this summer have all made very encouraging starts to their careers at Old Trafford.
The calculated gamble Solskjaer & his staff made was to trust the academy prospects to plug the holes left by some of the departures this season. Especially up front where much faith is being shown in Mason Greenwood to provide back up & competition to Martial and Marcus Rashford. The likes of Andreas Pereira, Tahith Chong and Angel Gomes will also get game time, with Pereira being given a sustained run in the side to see if he has what it takes. Without doing this the management will never know. I’m sure Axel Tuanzebe, James Garner and Brandon Williams will also get their chances.
Without giving the young lads a chance, Solskjaer won’t know whether he needs a player in a certain position or not. I’m convinced that over the coming windows the Norweigan and his staff will target the likes of Jadon Sancho (who has massive commercial appeal too), James Maddison, John McGinn and Declan Rice. I would personally be looking at Lucas Digne of Everton and Moussa Dembele at Lyon, too. These players all fit the ‘philosophy’ as our former Dutch Manager would say. This is the right way to go rather than splurging on overpaid stars that probably don’t actually want to be at the club.
As stated before, any rebuild isn’t easy and the beginning is always the hardest part. Both Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino came in for criticism when they begin implementing their ideas at the start. For example, TalkSport’s Sports Bar used to refer to Klopp as “Brendan Klopp”, with the idea being that he wasn’t any better than Brendan Rodgers was at Liverpool, but look at them now. In days gone by Fergie was also criticised as he began to reshape his squad.
The infamous ‘You’ll never win anything with kids’ defeat to Aston Villa on the opening day of the 95/96 season was followed by a 3-0 defeat to York in the League Cup, but that crop of players & the plan he had certainly worked out well. Even during the rebuild from 2003-2006, there were poor results in the league and cups. Defeat to Southend, and a 0-0 draw with Exeter come to mind. There were question marks over whether Fergie still had it in him to compete with a young Mourinho and Benitez at Chelsea and Liverpool respectively.
He proved the doubters wrong. The rose-tinted spectacles don’t show the difficulties Ronaldo first had in English football or the struggles of Evra and Vidic before they became world-class players. I believe Solskajer’s ideas are the right ones and I personally will back him to the bitter end as I feel what he is trying to do is correct. His undoing, though could well be his tactics and persistence with players who aren’t producing (Pereira). He could be the man to do all of the donkey work and get the ball rolling, then someone else come in and take it on, but as long as they stick to a long term plan, I’m convinced that in the end, we’ll get the rewards. Another van Gaal quote of ‘trust the process’ comes to mind…