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Assessing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's First Year at Manchester United

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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's untimely suspension

With only six points standing between him and Messianic status on Merseyside, Jurgen Klopp is the obvious choice as the Premier League manager to be currently experiencing the greatest sense of professional frustration, as the season comes to a halt.

Beyond Klopp and his proximity to sporting immortality at Liverpool, there is a reasonable case to be made that it is Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who would be next on the list of Premier League managers for whom an indefinite break carries little appeal.

A little over two weeks ago, the 47-year-old reached the high water-mark of his twelve months in charge as permanent manager of Manchester United, following a 5-0 dismissal of Austrian side LASK in the first leg of their Europa League round of 16 tie. It was a victory carefree in nature, to complement the relentless intensity shown against Manchester City five days earlier; a performance that featured Bruno Fernandes silencing Pep Guardiola in more ways than one, as United achieved their first league double over City in a decade.

Solskjaer's almost perfect transfer spree

The stroll in Austria extended United’s unbeaten run to 11 games, for which their record reads: P11 W8 D3 L0 F29 A2. It includes victories at the Etihad and Stamford Bridge, consecutive 5-0 victories in Europe and 8 clean sheets; not since the extraordinary comeback against PSG led a giddy Rio Ferdinand to declare that "Man Utd are back!" has the mood at Old Trafford been so positive.

In the impudent quality of Fernandes’ displays, Solskjaer’s latest signing has drawn comparisons to Paul Scholes, while also demonstrating to Paul Pogba that it is possible to exhibit both swagger and unquestionable commitment at the same time when on the pitch. The Portuguese playmaker has galvanised United alongside fellow January arrival, Odion Ighalo. The former Watford striker’s four goals in eight games has forced his short-term loan to experience somewhat of a reputational makeover, from desperate last-minute roulette spin to brilliant piece of improvisational business.

For some, Ighalo and Fernandes represent the continuation of an improved transfer strategy since Solskjaer took over from previous manager, Jose Mourinho. Of the Norwegian’s summer acquisitions, Aaron Wan-Bissaka gave one of the outstanding defensive performances of the season in snuffing out the threat of Raheem Sterling against City, Daniel James has shown enough promise to warrant further opportunities to develop and Harry Maguire is now club captain.

Solskjaer doing it The United Way

It is not only recruitment that has borne fruit either; academy graduates Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams have made 36 and 26 appearances respectively, to go with a further 27 for Scott McTominay.

Fred, a player so often a lightning rod for ire and mockery in his short time in Manchester, is now showing the kind of dynamic performances that many expected after he arrived from Shakthar Donetsk. Before suffering injury, Marcus Rashford was experiencing his best season at Old Trafford and has gone from strength to strength under Solskjaer, other than his tough few months towards the end of 2019.

If there is one things Solskjaer has done right, it's bring in youth and at the right time. Greenwood and Williams are first-team regulars these days, whilst the likes of Tahith Chong and James Garner are still making noise in the youth ranks and have tasted senior action under the Norwegian's reign.

This blueprint created by Sir Matt Busby and perfected by Sir Alex Ferguson is now being crafted with a modern influx by Solskjaer. Generation after generation, the club seems to find the best talent and guide them into becoming club legends and cultural icons in their own right. Now, under Solskjaer, it seems things are no different.

Champions League football getting closer for United

For the fans, having a true disciple of Ferguson, a kindred spirit, lead a youthful and exciting team is a seductive experience – a fairytale to follow Jose’s toxic horror – and whenever football makes its return, Solskjaer may well go on to extend both his and Manchester United’s mythology.

It would certainly be the romantic’s choice. Yet, there is only ever so much room for sentiment in football, especially when a manager of the calibre of Mauricio Pochettino remains unemployed and on the minds of many fans.

When the Premier League season continues, it is far from certain that they will qualify for the Champions League. They currently sit fifth, which may well be enough dependant on the outcome of Manchester City’s tribulations with UEFA. Yet Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sheffield United and Tottenham Hotspur are all within touching distance, whilst Chelsea still occupies fourth spot.

It is not just City’s ban that Solskjaer can be thankful for. The projected number of points required to finish in the top 4 this season is 63, which would be the lowest points total for Champions League qualification via league position since Everton, with 61, in 2004-05 (Liverpool qualified with 58, as holders).

United will not always be able to count on so many of the Premier League’s heavyweights being underwhelming all at the same time, but still, there does seem to be positive movements from Solskajer in this regard, considering Mourinho left them in their worst start to a league since 1990-91, when he was sacked in December 2018.

A topsy-turvy year

So far, has the Norwegian done enough to convince to the board at Old Trafford to resist the temptation of appointing Pochettino; a man who steered Spurs to a top 4 finish in each of the seasons he completed in north London?

As eye-catching as the hat-trick of victories over Chelsea and City are, for each one of those six victories there is an example of United surrendering a lead before dropping points. They have lost more games away from home than they have won. Solskjaer’s points per game this season (1.55) is actually lower than that of David Moyes in 2013/14 (1.68). Whilst, United’s longest winning streak in the league is just two games.

It would be churlish to suggest that the current unbeaten run has not provided evidence of United making progress under Solskjaer, it is difficult to shake the feeling that the resulting optimism has been heightened by just how bad things were before it started. Only in January, it appeared inevitable that Ed Woodward would be forced to sack a club legend, as United lost 2-0 at home to Burnley, in derisory fashion; a result that concluded a run of 4 defeats in 7 in the Premier League. Had Tranmere Rovers pulled off an upset at in the FA Cup four days later, it seems inconceivable that the Old Trafford dugout would not have a different man standing in it today.

Instead, United won 6-0, in what has the potential to be Solskjaer’s Mark Robins moment. Yet there is a reason why Mauricio Pochettino is still as short as 2/5 (Sky Bet) to be the man to replace the Norwegian. Already, less 18 months into his time as United boss, it feels as though the hero of the ‘99 European Cup final has sailed too close to the wind for romance or sentiment to see him through another turbulent run of form.

By Michael Murphy