Following the dismissal of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as Manchester United manager, a departure that seemed inevitable after a 4-1 humiliation at Vicarage Road, Reds fans have been left feeling both saddened and relieved as they have digested the news over the last 24 hours; whilst many are downbeat over the exit of a club legend, there is a sense of optimism as names of replacements do the rounds on social media. Although the man to eventually succeed the Norwegian legend is a hot topic of conversation, it is worth assessing Solskjaer’s time at the club in-depth, from the most joyous of highs to the most deflating of lows.
‘Ole’s at the Wheel’
On 22nd December 2018, Solskjaer took a seat in the away dugout at the Cardiff City Stadium. Alongside him sat Michael Carrick, Kieran McKenna and Mike Phelan, a supporting act who he would go onto retain until his final game on 20th November 2021.
Following a depressing spell with Jose Mourinho in charge, supporters were given a Christmas treat with a thumping win in Wales. The side went on to achieve some impressive wins in the weeks that followed, most notably one of Solskjaer’s finest at the helm, which was a victory over PSG right at the depth to put United into the last 8 of the Champions League. Many fans were furtherly impressed by the ruthless removal of Marouane Fellaini to China in the January window. In March 2019, there was a restored sense of optimism around the club.
From the relationship with the fans to the attacking football on display, everything seemed to be positive, a rarity since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson back in 2013. Rio Ferdinand can famously be quoted saying “Ole’s at the wheel man he’s doing it, he’s doing his thing, Man United are back”. Lo and behold, Solskjaer was appointed as permanent Manchester United manager, but results and performances took a tumble as the season concluded, including embarrassing defeats against both Huddersfield and Cardiff.Embed from Getty Images
Some fans were pessimistic as the 2018/19 campaign wrapped up, credibly claiming that the manager’s CV could not justify being given the toughest job in world football, but the majority remained forward-thinking and dreamt of the club reclaiming the Premier League title with Ole at the wheel.
An area that Solskjaer had to address in the Summer of 2019 was the transfer policy. With failed incomings in the years prior, none more so than the number 7 shirt flops Angel Di Maria and Alexis Sanchez, it was essential that the manager changed the recruitment criteria to those who were hungry, looking for that step up in their career and who were ambitious to play for United, as oppose to players coming for a pay package.
Daniel James, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, and Harry Maguire fell delightfully into such criteria, stepping up from Swansea, Crystal Palace, and Leicester City respectively, and they became the first three signings of the Solskjaer era. Whilst the side prepared for the upcoming campaign, winning all 6 of their pre-season fixtures, Solskjaer was efficient in removing the deadwood out the door. Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku were part of an exodus at Old Trafford that appeased many fans.
First full season in charge
The 2019/20 campaign got off to a flying start. Daniel James came off the bench as a debutant in the closing stages of the opening game against Chelsea to make it 4-0, a day of sheer elation at the Theatre of Dreams. Unfortunately, the results weren’t so consistent from then until January; for every win at home to Brighton, there was always an away slump to Bournemouth on the cards. The inconsistency epitomised the lack of experience in a young squad, and a 2-0 loss at home to Burnley in January seemed like the turning point for many supporters who were crying out for the Norwegian boss to be sacked.Embed from Getty Images
Then came the man who categorically saved Manchester United’s season. Bruno Fernandes came in from Sporting Lisbon in a £56.7m transfer to solve the club’s creative midfield conundrum. 28 goal involvements in 27 appearances until the end of the campaign rocketed United to a 3rd place finish, one that seemed unattainable a matter of months beforehand. Panic-buy Odion Ighalo bagged a few belters in his short stint at the club. Youngsters Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams enjoyed lots of minutes in the manager’s first full season in charge, which showed promise in regard to promoting the youth.
In a nothing game, countless academy graduates were handed their debuts in a red shirt away at Astana, a wholesome moment that touched in nicely with the traditions of the club. As hard as it is to believe after their current form, Nemanja Matic and Fred were one of the best double pivots in Europe for a while when injuries were rife mid-season.
A Europa League exit to Sevilla was crushing, but when considering the outbreak of Covid-19 and the poor squad depth, fans were happy on the whole with the progress made. Marcus Rashford’s free-kick at Stamford Bridge and Scott McTominay’s Manchester Debry spectacular in the pouring rain will serve as happy memories for the 2019/20 season.
The wilting title charge & European tears of 2020/21
In the 2020 Summer window, supporters were left excited with the arrival of European-renowned talents such as Alex Telles and Donny van de Beek, as well as the more low-key acquisition of Ivorian winger Amad Diallo. Frustrated at the failure to sign Jadon Sancho, fans were in an uproar about the scrambled signing of Uruguayan veteran Edison Cavani (it seems ironic to think he has shone the most out of those 4 since). Solskjaer’s side started the season horribly. Delayed due to European involvement in the last campaign, United opened their season with a crushing 1-3 defeat at home to Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace, and a dismal 1-6 demolition was endured a matter of games later at the hands of Jose Mourinho’s Spurs.
A 100th minute Fernandes penalty at Brighton and a couple of comprehensive Carabao Cup victories kept Solskjaer’s head above the water early on in the campaign, and one of his finest managerial displays played out away at the Parc des Princes as United won 1-2 in the Champions League group stage which gave him breathing space. Weeks later, a crippling blow was dealt, with the team beaten away at RB Leipzig, subsequently meaning United’s dropped down to the Europa League once more. United responded with an excellent run of form until the season was over, give or take the sporadic slip-up, which saw them finish 2nd in the table and runners up in the Europa League Final, where David de Gea’s spot kick was saved, with United beaten 11-10 on penalties by Villarreal. As always with United, there seemed to be mixed emotions as the season concluded. On the one hand, the team had finished 2nd, which was an improvement on the year before, and the side had gone unbeaten away from home all season in the league.Embed from Getty Images
On the other hand, Solskjaer had ground out 2nd spot with mostly pragmatic displays and did so using the same 14 or 15 players; the wider squad was not utilised and the team had shown a ’bottle-job’ mentality by crashing out of domestic semi-finals and a European final. United finished the season without a trophy, and fans were left bemused by the consistent use of ‘McFred’ and the poor treatment of Dutchman Donny van de Beek. It has to be said that, on the whole, there were probably more negatives than positives in the eyes of supporters. Questions were posed as to whether Solskjaer would be the man to win silverware with his squad of players, with United falling at final hurdles.
The wheels fall off…Embed from Getty Images
Heading into the 2021/22 campaign, fans knew that for the manager to succeed and win a trophy, additions to the squad were required. The Summer transfer window did not disappoint. On the back of roaring protests outside the ground in response to the family’s support of the European Super League and their poor communication with fans, the Glazers opted to spend big money on big players.
Chance creation had been an issue from the wings in the previous campaign, so the long-overdue addition of Jadon Sancho was welcomed by fans, as was the signing of Raphael Varane, who came in as the dream defensive partner for Maguire. Cristiano Ronaldo’s return rocked the footballing world as waves of optimism flooded Manchester.
The only criticism that fans had was the failure to sign a defensive midfielder; however, sources close to the club had it on good authority that the club’s coaching set-up didn’t feel the need to buy one. The situation was simple- Solskjaer now had everything he wanted and it was now or never for success. Fast forward to where we are now in November, the season has been a mixed bag. A 4-1 win over Newcastle on Ronaldo’s second debut was emphatic, but a 0-5 loss at home to biggest rivals Liverpool was sour.Embed from Getty Images
Losses against Leicester, Liverpool and Manchester City compounded misery amongst the fans, and it was ultimately the defeat at Watford on Saturday that signaled the end of the Solskjaer Era, with United having won only 5 of their 12 Premier League games. The manager was relieved of his duties the following morning, yet he stuck around Carrington to film an emotional interview that has undoubtedly touched the hearts of every United fan worldwide.
So, with all that said, Solskjaer spent just over three and a half seasons in the Old Trafford hot seat. On one side of the coin, having ended his tenure trophyless with a pragmatic style of play, it could be said that the Solskjaer experiment has ended a failure; his poor mistreatment of certain players, his failure to utilise the wider squad and his overreliance on certain characters has ultimately proven pivotal to his departure. The quality of coaching behind him, coupled with his lack of arrogance and the bite that top managers possess, has cost him in the long term.
On the flip side of the coin, the 99’ legend has brought the club upwards from the depths of despair under Mourinho and has restored goodwill in the dressing room; the ruthlessness in removing the bad eggs and the acquisition of some top players has created a happy camp at Old Trafford, and he has ultimately laid the foundations for an elite manager to shine and bring back the glory days to the football club.Embed from Getty Images
The relationship between the players and the fans, excluding these last couple of weeks, has improved and the atmosphere at the Theatre of Dreams has been restored. Solskjaer may prove to be the man before the man and, if that does become the case, history is likely to treat him well. Whether or not you define Solskjaer’s Manchester United managerial stint as a success, a failure, or somewhere in between is a matter of opinion, just like anything in football.
One thing that is for sure, though, is that Solskjaer’s name will be sung from the stands for many years to come, and his reputation as a club legend is well and truly intact. He said himself in his farewell interview that he will be watching on as a fan like the rest of us, which backs up the fact that Ole will forever be a true red.
With a tear in his eye, Solskjaer said “I’ll watch them and support them” to Stewart Gardner in his final club interview. Having stopped to see to supporters on his way out of Carrington, Ole embraced a fan’s hug and told him “It has been an honour to work for Man United”.