“We are getting better layer by layer”. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said to the media after defeating Liverpool in the FA Cup Round 4.
Since taking over the role from Jose Mourinho, there’s a lot of criticism of how Ole has managed Manchester United and what his style of football is. But in January 2021, after beating Liverpool, we briefly got an insight into the layered approach that Ole is trying to implement with this new Manchester United team. This approach seems to have finally resonated with fans and Manchester United hierarchy alike which has resulted in a new contract until 2024 with the option of an additional year.
Since taking over in December of 2018, Ole has brought in a fresh energy which the club needed desperately after 3 turbulent managerial cycles. Recruitment was one of the major areas where United were falling behind their opponents. Ole has brought in Harry Maguire, Varane (pending), Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Alex Telles, Donny van de Beek, Bruno Fernandes, Jadon Sancho, Daniel James, Edinson Cavani along with some youth acquisitions which clearly indicates a shift in recruitment. Apart from some of them not playing regularly, most of the above players are currently a vital part of Ole’s United team. He is not only able to bring in good quality players but also has been able to move the likes of Matteo Darmian and Marouane Fellaini to name a few, who were part of the core team that he took over.Embed from Getty Images
Ole has also succeeded in bringing good players from the academy. Greenwood has become a regular and Elanga, Garner and Shoretire are quickly looking as good prospects as squad players. The depth of the squad which looked non-existent in 2019 has suddenly turned into a good one. All these have been done in two and half summer windows, but this doesn’t indicate that everything related to recruitment is fixed but it clearly shows a change in thinking.
The layer by layer approach can also be observed in how United play. Ole started with quick attacking football with counterattack the primary form that was adopted. But slowly teams started to sit deep, which resulted in a lot of boring draws and a few losses. Ole was able to identify the glaring need for a true number 10 that would not only open defenses but also be a goal scorer himself and Bruno Fernandes was brought in mid-season for this. The instant impact that Fernandes had on the team which resulted in him winning the Player of the Year award and United finishing third. He revitalized the attack and suddenly United looked the most attacking frontline at the end 2019/20 season. Solskjaer clearly understood that depending on a single player to create and score goals is still not a sustainable way in which the team can play. He wanted goals and assists from other parts of the field. And come 2020/21 season, the left side has been the largest contributor to goals.Embed from Getty Images
The tremendous role he has played in the development of Luke Shaw as the best left-back in the World currently, shows the smart man-management that he adopts. And for the upcoming season, he has quickly fixed the problem on the right side by bringing in Jadon Sancho who will create and score goals to balance the team. The imminent signing of Varane also shows Ole sticking to his guns for the players he wants to bring in to stabilize the squad in all areas as soon as possible. The appointment of a new set-piece coach in Marc Skinner shows that Ole and his team are constantly identifying areas where the team is lacking and rectifying these issues quickly.
When Solskjaer first took the wheel, the squad was aging. After a few matches, the quick attacking football within the fabric of the club resulted in series of injuries. United finished sixth at the end of the 2018/19 season. The Norweigian was quickly able to identify the immediate need to increase the level of fitness of the squad and the progress in this aspect has been tremendous. Manchester United was one of the few teams that played every 3 days for the entirety of the 2020/21 season with very few injuries. The harmonious and positive atmosphere around the dressing room is a direct result of the calming influence of the manager. Look at how Pogba’s situation is being handled, Ole took a hard stand publicly when he felt that it was affecting the team during the team’s Champions League exit, but never did target Pogba publicly before or after that incident. In fact, immediately after this incident, we saw some of the best performances from Pogba. During the away match at Milan, when Pogba was brought in at halftime, the cameras captured Ole motivating Pogba by telling him to put in a performance like what Cavani did against Southampton in the league. And that clearly worked as Pogba turned the game to its head in Manchester United’s favor.Embed from Getty Images
Ole as a manager has done many rights but also has done a few major wrongs. This list includes some strange team selection in cup knockout rounds and passive play from United. The major missing part of this puzzle for Ole is a trophy which would not only solidify his position as a manager but also give the team the confidence to challenge for the league title. The contract extension is the right step from the board, but it also needs to back him with the correct players if they want to see substantial progress. If United can acquire a midfielder to replace Pogba and a backup RB, then 21/22 would be one of the most anticipated seasons since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.