Ole Gunnar Solskjær: lessons to be learned after 100 games

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The space of two weeks is a long time in the life of a football manager. For Ole Gunnar Solskjær, this period has seen him transform, according to the national media, from a manager capable of tactically outclassing Tuchel and Nagelsmann, to one hopelessly out of his depth after the embarrassing performances against Arsenal and Istanbul Başakşehir. While blushes were temporarily spared with a good result against Carlo Ancelotti’s Everton, one question currently divides the fanbase more than any other: is Solskjær the right man for the job?

For many United fans, there are aspects to Solskjær’s tenure that simply haven’t been good enough. The underlying issue since the Nord took over is one of consistency. His tenure can be defined by its peaks and troughs: that unbelievable 12 game unbeaten run as caretaker manager, followed by a costly drop off in results following his most notable victory at the Parc des Princes. The 2019/20 season, itself, was a game of two halves. The autumn-winter period was marred by lacklustre performances against lesser opposition and a blatant absence of creativity in the side. Yet this was followed by the galvanising signing of Bruno Fernandes and the immediate upturn in form that followed, culminating in yet another highly impressive unbeaten streak in the tough conditions of post-lockdown football.

Despite an underwhelming start to this season, it has been followed up by impressive displays against Newcastle, PSG and RB Leipzig. These high times are emblematic of everything good about Solskjær’s tenure: genuine progress, enjoyable performances, young, exciting players and successes that have been foreign to the club in the past decade. Once again, however, there was something highly predictable about those defeats against a tactically astute Arsenal and, frankly, beatable Turkish side which immediately followed. This frequent fluctuation between excitement and disappointment is beginning to disaffect many United fans with higher ambitions than Champions League qualification and derby day victories.

If one word can define Solskjær’s tenure, therefore, it is progress. The question is how patient the critical and pessimistic areas of the United fanbase can be in a footballing climate which dictates quick improvement and memorable success more than ever before. As is now typical of United’s managerial three-year cycle, it is these members of the Old Trafford faithful who have begun to call for Solskjær’s replacement. Mauricio Pochettino is the popular choice: a figure who, in theory, matches the club’s philosophy and is seen as more of a serial winner than the Nord. Solskjær never feels more than a few defeats away from the sack and, as such, the Argentine’s arrival feels almost inevitable if this elusive consistency is not found.

This fluctuation between excitement and disappointment is beginning to disaffect many United fans.

Issues at the club, however, are far bigger than the individual. The Old Trafford dugout is a poisoned chalice: a consistently inept CEO in the figure of Woodward exacerbates issues created by owners who, at all times, are keen to shift the blame away from themselves. The club has been crying out for a Director of Football role for some time – a figure who can mediate the club’s corporate and footballing interests in the ways that Ferguson and Gill did to great effect in the club’s glory years. Instead, misplaced investment, an incredibly frustrating inability to shift expensive deadwood and an apparent desire to sign ‘marketable’ players has cost the club frequently over the past 10 years.

It should be said, however, that it is in these areas where Solskjær has shown real progress. Three out of four of last season’s signings can already be adjudged as big hits and genuine improvements while players such as Alexis Sanchez, the ultimate symbol of this horrendous transfer policy, have gone the other way. Much of this, it is understood, is down to the Nord stamping his own personal authority on transfer policy, contacting the players themselves and explaining their role at the club. In spite of progress on and off the pitch, however, many continue to suggest that Solskjær is simply out of his depth.

Indeed, for the Nord, the dye was cast from his very appointment. Eyebrows were raised when a figure, who’s only managerial experience included success in a Norwegian league (which statistically scales to England’s League One) and a dismal campaign with relegated Cardiff City, was appointed to one the elite clubs in world football. Even for the most optimistic of United fans, therefore, the caretaker’s initial winning streak was unfathomable. Despite moments of real success, this doubt in his managerial capabilities, however, has never really disappeared.

The string of bad results which litter Solskjær’s career as United manager are, at all times, confirmation for his critics that he is indeed out of his depth. In the week of defeats against Arsenal and Istanbul, writers across the well-regarded and usually consistent Athletic, came together to highlight the Nord’s ineptitude as a manager in whatever way possible. One writer, in particular, extracts a quote from Ole Gunnar’s earliest press conferences, in which he expresses his desire to play wide and attacking football, and then compares this to the narrow midfield diamond the Nord employed against Arsenal. The conclusion for this writer? Two isolated examples clearly reflect Solskjær’s complete lack of footballing philosophy. Beyond the fact that this was the first match of note in which United adopted this formation, it is emblematic of a wider desire from popular media and pessimistic fans alike to prove their fundamental belief: Ole was never fit for the job.

The issue for these critics comes, however, at times of success. How could a manager suited to Championship level football pull off the highly impressive string of results and, often, win against some of Europe’s top managers with relative consistency? The unexpected nature of these results can be explained, instead, by the quality of players Solskjaer has at his disposal. On countless occasions, for these writers, Rashford, Martial and Fernandes have ‘saved the day’ through individual brilliance: representing, therefore, precisely the kind of quality players that Solskjær is unfit to manage.

There is a clear stereotype of the Nord which has cast an unfavourable shadow over his managerial tenure.

Indeed, even the Nord’s main supporters undermine his success: the punditry of his former teammates has fuelled the myth that Solskjær’s success is down to his understanding of the club’s culture, as if vague belief in philosophy and tradition could itself yield results on the pitch. In the Ferguson years, when many of these pundits played, United could be defined by their work ethic, youth and exciting football. Ole has, indeed, done much to revive these principles. These highly nostalgic views of the Ferguson era, however, forget that his sides so often tactically outclassed, as well as outperformed, the opposition in front of them. Solskjær is not at the heights of the Great Scot, that much is clear. He does, however, often fall victim to this widespread myth: his success is so rarely seen as the result of strong tactical performances or successful coaching and, instead, relies on the idea that the Nord is only capable of generating abstract change given his own historic relevance to the club.

Admittedly, there is a risk of painting Solskjær’s as the ultimate victim. Last season was, fundamentally, a disappointment and, all too often, United are well-beaten by the type of sides that they used to face with confidence. Yet there is a clear stereotype of the Nord which has cast an unfavourable shadow over his managerial tenure. Compare, for example, the image of the ‘baby-faced’ Nord out of his depth, with the young bright mind of English football in Stamford Bridge’s dugout or Arteta’s portrayal as the heir to the Guardiola throne. In a recent interview, Solskjær claimed that England’s footballing authorities had “set them up to fail” with fixture congestion and match timings. This critique, at times, feels apt for issues far bigger than pure scheduling. Very few outside of Old Trafford have expected, or indeed wanted, the Nord to succeed and are desperate to prove themselves right.

It is too early to tell whether Solskjær really is fit for the job. His first 100 games have offered their fair share of disappointments, particularly in the lack of silverware or sustained challenge to Guardiola and Klopp’s dominance. The bottom line, however, is that Solskjær has not always got the credit he deserves. Impressive tactical displays, positive coaching and the creation of the most endearing United team in several years are undermined by the portrayal of Solskjær that has been there since his very arrival.

Image: Pat Mcdonald via Creative Commons

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