Has Ole Gunnar Solskjær got what it takes to be the next Manchester United manager?
When Ole Gunnar Solskjær was appointed as Manager of Manchester United on the 19th of December, many people were surprised and believed it was the wrong decision. Fast forward two months, and he has turned the club’s fortunes around. The only surprise now is how he’s managed to do it within such a short period of time. Solskjær lives and breathes Manchester United, there hasn’t been a press conference or an interview where he hasn’t emphasized his belief in the squad and admiration for everything Manchester United stands for. Solskjær is still only a caretaker manager, but with every coming week, the role seems more and more his own. With rumors circulating that Solskjær has earned the right to get the role on a full-time basis, let’s explore his impact at the club and the other realistic options available.
An unbeaten start only ended with a 2-0 defeat to PSG on Tuesday night, previously winning 10 from 11 games, it’s difficult to imagine how Solskjær could’ve had a better start to his tenure in his dream job. A disciple of Alex Ferguson’s, Solskjær has focused on keeping to the traditions instilled in the clubs history both on the pitch and off the pitch. Small changes such as ordering all players to wear the official club suits to all matches, to demanding that his players express themselves on the pitch and play for the badge are just some of the changes that we have seen from Solskjaer.
Without underestimating his impact at the club, Solskjaer has demonstrated that big changes on the pitch don’t require miraculous changes off the pitch. Giving Paul Pogba the freedom to play further forward, in contrast to Mourinho who complained he didn’t have the resources, have led to a resurgence in form. Some stats Graeme Souness might enjoy are that Pogba has registered six assists and eight goals since Solskjær took over, making this Pogba’s best scoring season in his career, with more than 15 games left to play for. A forward trident of Martial, Rashford, and Lingard have also flourished with the tactical change. These three now focus more of their efforts on offering pace and movement in behind with a weaker emphasis on tracking back. Personally, I felt the United squad was strong enough to compete to a degree, just needed a system to suit the players, which is what we are beginning to see more of now.
The managerial market is not short of established names. Although Antonio Conte knows how to win, that is simply the only box he ticks in terms of the characteristics the United board are looking for in their next appointment. So that rules him out. Laurent Blanc has and will be linked with the role because of his ties with the club. He could’ve made sense as a caretaker to settle the ship, but it would make no sense to give him the role over Solskjaer come to the end of the season. Zidane is another that has been mentioned, a bit more realistic but he doesn’t offer an identifiable philosophy that is required, despite winning three Champions Leagues in as many years. Allegri is close to creating a dynasty at Juventus, therefore I don’t feel this is the right time or opportunity for him to seek a new challenge in rebuilding a club.
That leaves one real candidate, Mauricio Pochettino. Poch is currently the longest-serving manager of a top six team in the Premier League. He is well thought of both domestically and internationally, with this being his tenth season as a manager and sixth in the Premier League. His high pressing and attacking style of play would be admired both by fans and players. At just 46, it makes perfect sense for him to oversee a long-term project, something he’s managed successfully at Tottenham albeit with no trophies. That’s the big question mark over Poch. Although he’s managed to improve players and tends to work well with a young squad, he doesn’t have anything to show for it. Yes, he’s been very economical with the resources at his disposal, often his teams have been described as overachieving, and it’s easy to see why. According to Sky Sports, since Poch took over in May 2014, Spurs have had a net spend of £29m, in comparison to Manchester United with £466m, second only to Manchester City with £518m. He’s often lacked squad depth as a result, which has cost Spurs in some important stages in previous seasons. This poses the question, are insufficient funds what’s missing for Poch to take the next step and win a trophy? If so, it’s certainly not something he would need to worry about at Old Trafford.
What has been obvious at Manchester United since Sir Alex retired in 2013 is a lack of identity and direction from the club. A lot has been made of Ed Woodword, he is a commercial genius, no doubt, but his knowledge and understanding of football are not as impressive. The board had announced in December plans to appoint a Director of football in the summer, working directly under Woodword, acting as an intermediary between the manager and board. This should make it easier for the club to maintain their core values of attacking football and integrating academy players in the first team, with a clearer communication system in place. The defeat to PSG was a good reminder of the work that still needs to be done in the summer. Solskjær has had a positive impact at the club that has seen an improvement in team performances since he joined in December. It’s best to assess his overall impact at the end of the season and make a final verdict then. Not getting top four, however, should not be the deciding factor when considering Solskjær, as the decision should be focused on long term targets the club want to work towards, whether that is with Solskjær or someone else. Manchester United is about dreaming, and for now, Solskjær is allowing fans to dream again.