When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was appointed Manchester United’s caretaker manager in 2018, few thought he would still be at the helm the next season. After all, the Norwegian coach had very little credentials to his managerial career, having only coached Molde FC in the Norwegian league and Cardiff FC, which was relegated into the Championship during his tenure. Nevertheless, an impressive streak from December 2018 to March 2019, which included a win in the round of 16 of the Champion’s League against one of the tournament favourites Paris Saint Germain, earned him a permanent managerial position.
Since signing the contract however, things haven’t gone to plan. What was meant to be a revival of a sleeping giant somewhat turned into a tranquilisation of a lame duck. Shortly after signing the permanent contract, Solskjaer’s United would go on to lose the quarter final tie in the Champions League against Barcelona as well 4-0 against Everton FC in the Premier League. For the remainder of the season, United managed to get two draws, two losses and no wins, as the season ended with a disappointing 2-0 defeat against Cardiff, which saw them miss out on a Champions League spot. It seemed that the board’s decision to appoint Ole was pre-mature, however at that point the club could not afford to sack another manager in such a short time window.
A NEW REBUILD?
Although, the 2019-20 season has been a mixed bag, the team can be happy with the progress it has made. Nevertheless, one cannot ignore the critical early losses that seemed to signal that Ole was out of his depth, some major games that come to mind include a 2-0 away defeat against West Ham and a 1-0 defeat against Newcastle. However, during the transfer windows Ole would get rid many players such as Ashley Young, Alexis Sanchez, and Romelu Lukaku who were offloaded either due to poor performances or aging. In their places, the club would sign some young and enthusiastic talents such as Daniel James, Aaron Wan Bissaka, and Harry Maguire. The January transfer window would prove to be an even more crucial point in the season as that was when Ole arguably made his most important signing so far, Bruno Fernandes a Portuguese attacking midfielder who signed from the Portuguese club Sporting Lisbon in what now seems like a bargain price of 47 million pounds.
THE BRUNO FERNANDES FACTOR
Bruno Fernandes has injected new life into the United squad. Soon after his signing United go on an impressive 17 game undefeated run that eventually ended at the FA Cup semi-final game against Chelsea, which they would lose 3-1. During his half season at the club, Fernandes managed to score 11 goals and provide 8 assists in 21 appearances. His performances saw him earn the Premier League player of the month award twice in a row in February and June (the Premier League was suspended in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, and would resume in June). The last time any player has won player of the month twice in a row was during the 2017-18 season when Liverpool’s Mo Salah won the award in February and March of his first season with the Reds. More importantly, Fernandes’s attacking prowess provided flare that was missing from Man United, which despite having proven goal scorers such as Martial and Rashford would often find a lack of assists from the midfield area. Pogba’s return from injury would show just how lethal Man United’s attack had become. Furthermore, this season showed the potential of academy graduate Mason Greenwood who benefitted from the revived midfield as he bagged 17 goals this season, becoming the 4th teenager in United’s history to score 17 goals as he joined the same elite list which include Wayne Rooney and George Best.
QUESTIONS LEFT TO BE ANSWERED
In spite of a rocky start, this season has been a massive improvement for Solskjaer and United who managed to finish third in the Premier League securing a much coveted Champions League spot for the next season. However, United’s FA Cup semi-final defeat against Chelsea did leave a lot of questions over Solskjaer’s prospective long-term tenure at United. During the game, the manager decided to revert back to defensive tactics, which were by and large abandoned after Fernandes’s arrival. In Solskjaer’s defence, he did defeat Lampard’s Chelsea twice using such tactics, but he didn’t take into account the fact that Lampard might have learned from these two previous meetings and adapted. The FA Cup loss was a hard reality check for United confirming that they are far from the finished product. But for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, United seem to have a viable rebuild in place and it is up to Ole to oversee the continuation of the project. It cannot be denied that Ole has massively changed the team’s play style and philosophy, however until he successfully secures a major trophy he will still be viewed by most rival fans and media pundits as a mediocre or even a failing manager. One mustn’t forget that, with the exception of David Moyes, every full time manager since Sir Alex Ferguson has won at least one major trophy with the Red Devils. Dutch coach Louis Van Gaal won the FA Cup at his last season at the club, while Jose Mourinho won the EFL Trophy and the Europa League during his first season.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s first few seasons at Man United weren’t stellar, and many fans and pundits doubted he was the right man for the job. However, that would change once he won the FA Cup in 1990 and the now defunct UEFA Cup Winners Cup in 1991. While it is highly unlikely (if not impossible) that Ole will have the same managerial legacy as Sir Alex Ferguson, he might at least be the one who paves the way for United to go back to their winning ways of years gone by. It is for this reason that winning this season’s Europa League will be critical for Ole, as that would prove the doubters wrong and ensure that he will stay long enough to construct the base for United’s rebuild.