Words by Danny Brown
Now I’m not a Manchester United fan, far from it. But no-one can deny that the Red Devils’ resurgence under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer this season has been nothing short of remarkable. In just a few months, United have gone from their worst ever Premier League start, playing negative, non-football under Jose Mourinho to a team that’s flying, showing glimpses of the swagger and confidence not seen at Old Trafford since the Fergie days.
Let’s go back to December. A humbling 3-1 defeat to Liverpool had proved to be the final nail in Jose Mourinho’s money-lined coffin and The Big Bad Wolf was finally out of the door. But with United having had their worst start to a Premier League season ever and trailing the top four by 11 points, it seemed at the time like, no matter who came in, the rest of the season would be just as bleak.
Rather than rush into another full-time appointment (and probably with one eye on Zidane in the Summer), Ed Woodward and the gang opted to appoint a caretaker til the end of the season. Solskjaer was the man they chose, a club legend (scorer of the famous treble winning goal in 1999, no less), a cheerful chap with modest managerial experience, inside knowledge of the club and a pre-existing bond with the supporters bound to improve the mood around Old Trafford, if nothing else.
In his first few games in charge, United collected three emphatic wins against Cardiff (5-1), Huddersfield (3-1) and Bournemouth (4-1). All games you could argue they were expected to beat (even under Jose). But it was the manner of these victories that really caught the eye. Whereas under Mourinho, United would have gone out to secure a safe 1-0 or 2-0 win against these mid-to-lower-table sides (boring half the stadium to sleep in the process), Solskjaer’s United came out to attack, and attack often.
It was like watching a completely different team. A throwback to a different Man United era. This was a set of players, who had looked so dysfunctional and stifled at times under Mourinho, playing with a freedom and confidence not seen this season at Old Trafford. For the first time in months, United were getting the ball out wide, running at defences, playing fast, exciting football. Playing the United way.
Ole himself explained it as: “Pace and power, that’s what we are. We attack quickly when we can. Get the ball up in their half as soon as we can, as quickly as we can. If you score, fantastic, if not then you’ve got to have patient build-up play. But attack, quickly.” Comparing United’s style of play to his own playing days, he referenced attacking talents such as Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke (‘Yorkie’), Ryan Giggs (‘Giggsy’) and David Beckham (‘Becks’).
What was shocking to learn was that with their 5-1 win against Cardiff, United had recorded five goals against an opponent for the first time since the reign of Sir Alex Ferguson. Such is United’s decline in recent years, that teams that would have once gone to Old Trafford praying to avoid a five or six-nil thumping were now going there with a genuine belief they might be able to nick a point (or three).
These early results, along with Solskjaer’s sentiments in his early press conferences, quickly saw the United back onside. You can hardly blame them, after suffering the ‘Special One’s negativity, melodrama and mind games for for the last two-and-half years, Solskjaer’s refreshingly old-school and honest approach, delivered in his half-Norwegian, half-Mancunian accent must be like a welcome breath of fresh air for Red Devils fans.
What Solskjaer may lack in experience and tactical knowledge, he more than makes up for in his understanding of the history and tradition that’s at the heart of United. Having played for the club for over a decade under the mentorship of Sir Alex Ferguson, there’s not many people in football more equipped to continue the United tradition. “We’re playing for the supporters, we’re playing for our pride, we’re playing for the clubs history.”
So far Ole has done everything right. His faith in Paul Pogba, something the Frenchman was clearly lacking under Mourinho, is being repaid on the pitch. Alexis Sanchez has been quietly eased onto the fringes and Marouane Fellaini sold. Perhaps most impressive of all, Romelo Lukaku, made to look like a donkey at times under Mourinho, is now finally playing like a £75 million striker.
But by far the most defining moment in Solskjaer’s short tenure has the remarkable turnaround against Paris Saint Germain in the Champions League. Going into the first coasting off the back of ten victories out of Solskjaer’s first eleven games, the reds were brought swiftly back down to earth by the 2-0 defeat inflicted on them by PSG at home, with Paul Pogba earning himself a late red card to make matters even worse.
Going to the Parc des Princes with a two-goal deficit, a suspension and a handful of injuries and winning is no easy feat. But when Romelu Lukaku, rejuvenated under Solskjaer, gave United a shock lead just two minutes into the reverse tie – it became abundantly clear, that the United players on the pitch backed themselves to do just that.
Not even PSG restoring their deficit through Bernat ten minutes later was enough to soften United’s resolve, Lukaku getting his second before half time to put United one strike away from clinching the tie on away goals. A tense second half wore on, and it seemed like PSG’s one-goal advantage was going to be good enough for them to sneak through into the quarters.
Then in the dying seconds, a speculative shot from Diego Dalot struck the arm of Presnel Kimpembe inside the PSG box. A lengthy VAR review later, United had a spot kick, with Marcus Rashford, their Mancunian-born academy product standing over it. Ice running through his veins, the 21-year-old stepped up and smashed the ball home, sending United through in the most dramatic fashion possible.
Since Solskjaer took over, United have won 14 games, drawing two and losing three. They’ve seen impressive wins over Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs and gone 11 points adrift of the top four to just two points behind Arsenal in fourth. They’re in the quarter finals of the Champions League and playing their most exciting football in months. All things considered, it seemed almost impossible for United not to keep him on full time.
The three-year deal given to Solskjaer by United makes him the club’s fourth permanent manager since Fergie’s departure in 2016, and they’ll be hoping that Ole is finally the perfect-fit they’ve been looking for since then. If he can continue the start he’s made this season, then the signs are he could finally be the man to restore United to their former success, over the next few years and beyond.
However one important thing to note is that we’re yet to see Solksjaer under any sort of real hardship at United. As unstoppable as they may seem at present, the ‘honeymoon period’ must come to an end eventually and when it does, is when we’ll see what the Norwegian’s management credentials are really made of. At the time of writing United have lost their last two games on the bounce and Ole will be desperate to return to winning ways against Watford on Saturday.
But for now: “Ole’s at the wheeeel…”