When Jose Mourinho was sacked by the most successful club in the history of English football, Manchester United, they were a mess. Players’ confidence was on the floor, a number of them were reluctant to sign contract extensions and the fans were bored of watching a style of football that was the polar opposite of that which made them the global force they now are.
The headlines said Zinedine Zidane, the former World Cup and European Championship winner and record-breaking Real Madrid manager, or Tottenham Hotspurs’ Mauricio Pochettino, who has done an incredible job at White Hart Lane – and Wembley – with limited resource would come in. However, The Red Devils board instead called in legend and former striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on a temporary basis, which essentially means he is on loan from Molde, from his native country of Norway, until the end of the season.
Solskjaer, who probably netted United’s most famous goal – the injury time winner against Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final – was met with mixed reviews on his arrival; Manchester United fans and ex-players were generally positive as he ‘understands the United way’ whilst others pointed to his inexperience and failure at Cardiff City in his only other taste of Premier League management.
Initial results were promising, perfect in fact, as Solskjaer’s team put together a run of five straight wins, four in the league, scoring 15 goals but the jury was still out. Midfielder Paul Pogba, who was constantly underperforming for Mourinho, and England’s Marcus Rashford, who struggled for regular game time in the previous regime, shone but many felt Solskjaer wasn’t a coach but more a man who had simply put smiles back on the faces of players who had bags of talent.
Next up was high flying Spurs, a game that, at the time, was not only the toughest in Solskjaer’s limited reign but one that also meant a head to head with one of the favourites for the job in the Old Trafford hot seat. Still, a combination of a clever tactical approach and a goalkeeping masterclass from David De Gea saw United to secure three more points.
The impressive start to his managerial stint, including a victory over a league rival, put his name firmly in the frame but it wasn’t until the FA Cup tie away at Arsenal when he emerged as the frontrunner; another match against a strong side and another win, following a lesson in counter attacking football.
Finally, Solskjaer started to receive the recognition that there is far more in his arsenal – pun intended – than the simple ability to ‘put smiles on faces’ but then came the first big question mark.
A Champions League tie, Paris Saint Germain. Pundits and fans alike saw this match as the defining moment for Solskjaer. United, after losing Jesse Lingard early on, faltered to an uninspiring defeat (2-0) at the feet of Mbappe and company. Had the wheels come off?
Since then, The Baby Faced Assassin, as he was known in his playing days, has regrouped. His team remain galvanised and they’ve turned in further impressive performances, first blowing away Chelsea in the FA Cup, which is another step towards potential silverware, and then holding Liverpool’s forceful attacking force to a goalless draw, despite suffering four injuries inside the opening 45 minutes. Add to that, the fact they’ve then added a further three points to their tally following a potential banana skin at Selhurst Park, the home of Crystal Palace, and it’s fair to say, there is a case to be heard.
When Solskjaer arrived he was calm, confident and modest. He’s proven tactically astute and has been flexible to change his formation and players to counter different challenges; Pogba and Rashford have been transformed into two of the most in form players in the world and his whole squad is playing with a spring in their step. The Champions League might prove a step too far, since PSG can beat anyone on their day – and comfortably – but when he joined the idea of Manchester United in the competition again next year seemed near on impossible. Yet, just a couple of months later and United are back in the hunt for a top four finish and with the potential to lift the FA Cup and it’s all been done playing fast paced attacking football – the United way.