Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer being appointed permanent manager of Manchester United. The decision came after the heroics in Paris, where Marcus Rashford converted a penalty at the death after a very controversial moment involving, you guessed it, VAR. United were bouncing at the time, despite having suffered a few setbacks before that famous night in the French capital, the long run United went on from that December was fresh in the memories of all those connected to the club. Wins against Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs with a side who were faltering under their predecessor, gave encouragement that the good times may be coming to the red side of Manchester once more.
However, the mood seemed to change as soon as Solskjaer became the long-term fixture in the manager’s chair. Performances fell off for several reasons.
Firstly, there were constant niggles that Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford had to play through. Secondly, David De Gea’s form going seriously downhill meant that there was an unease from the defenders in front of him. Lindelof after a fantastic few months, showed this with a turgid display away to an already relegated Huddersfield side at the end of the season. The stability that the Spaniard had consistently offered us as a club had seemed to evaporate overnight. He was a shadow of what he was and arguably still is now this season, to a lesser extent albeit.
Thirdly, the away form of United was a huge concern. It started in the away defeat to Arsenal, with a Xhaka effort compounding United to misery in the capital. The defeat away to Everton was a significant blow, falling to a huge and embarassing 4-0 defeat against the Toffees. Huddersfield was also a significant defeat. Wider than just the away form, the defeats against teams like Cardiff arguably foreshadowed the kind of trouble we have had this season in defeating so called ‘smaller’ teams. Yes, the factors leading to these results are different in their nature, but it has been a consistent theme of the majority of Solskjaer’s reign for United to struggle against the smaller sides.
On many occasions, I thought Solskjaer was losing more and more of a grip on his tenure at the club he loves so much. I wrote as much as early as October, suggesting it was an ‘inevitability’ that Mauricio Pochettino would replace him in Sir Alex’s chair at Old Trafford. I acknowledge that this is not completely out of the question and Solskjaer has not fully solidified his job yet, however I see it as a remarkable achievement for the Norwegian that he has survived the several low points that he has had in the last few months.
As alluded to above, the uncertainty around Ole’s future arose by some lacklustre performances in the smaller games this season. A home defeat to Burnley was appalling and the amount of points dropped was bordering on a disgrace for a club of our heritage and containing the talent that we have. There were arguably two issues highlighted by this. Firstly, there were no creative outlets capable of breaking down a packed defence. Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira are not the type of players capable of having the guile to do this, meaning we fell to so many frustrating results. Secondly, this raised question marks against Ole for failing to find a workaround to this issue through tactical innovation.
Despite this being a relevant factor, I tend to pose more weight to the view that he simply lacked the personnel to be more innovative. You only have to see the impact that Bruno Fernandes has had in these types of games, to know that this is the case. Bruno has been a revelation and United are now suddenly so much more fluid and destructive in these sorts of games. He has fantastic connections with a lot around him, including a resurgent Nemanja Matic, Daniel James, Juan Mata and Anthony Martial. United play with the arrogance to enable us to win these ‘smaller’ games much more easily.
This shows how Ole has largely got his recruitment right. Bruno has been an undisputed success already, despite only being at the club a couple of months. Harry Maguire, who has had criticism for his underwhelming start in a United shirt, has put in some consistently top performances coinciding with being announced permanent club captain.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka has been a solid acquisition, rarely making a mistake to the extent of sides moving their wingers away from him, he has been that good defensively. There have been eyebrows raised about his attacking prowess, but in games like the City home win, he was adventurous and caused numerous problems for their left hand side. Dan James had a riveting start but has fallen away somewhat recently. However, he was never signed as a starter and it is unfair to judge him accordingly for his potential overuse in relation to his development. He has and will be a fine addition for the risk involved.
This gives encouragement that Ole can sign the three or four players needed to elevate this squad even further and sign the right ones at that. This is coupled with his development of the current squad. Rashford, Fred, McTominay and Shaw have all enjoyed something of a boom in their recent performances. Plus, he is developing and managing the bright futures of players such as Brandon Williams and Mason Greenwood very well, and getting some encouraging performances in return.
Also, combined with the improved performances in the smaller games has been a consistent level of performance in the bigger games. Wins versus Spurs and three against City and Chelsea show that Ole is getting something right. The combination of an improvement in the smaller and bigger games show that United may be going down the right track.
I never thought I would say this, but Ole deserves more time to shape this squad even further and progress us.