Now that Ole Gunnar Solksjaer has left Manchester United, Nerve Sport's Noah SMith gives his opinion on the legacy the Norwegian has left behind at Old Trafford
It was the 94th minute in the Parc De France. A brace from Romelu Lukaku put Manchester United back into the game and they were now 3-2 down on aggregate against PSG. One more away goal would hand United the tie and a famous victory in Paris. A contentious Presnel Kimpembe handball in the box was United’s golden opportunity. With seemingly the weight of the world of his shoulders, Marcus Rashford stepped back to take the penalty, the legendary Gigi Buffon the only person in his way of booking United’s ticket to a Champions League Quarter-Final. Rashford runs up and smashes the ball. The ball rockets into the top left side of the goal, and Manchester United, once again, had done the unthinkable in added time. Solskjaer celebrated with his players, and shades of that night in Barcelona were brought up by many a pundit and fan. It did seem, in the words of Rio Ferdinand, that United were back.
Nearly 3 years on from that night in Paris, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is now out of work. His sacking came after an abysmal 4-1 loss to Watford, and with United 12 points off the top, the pre-season hopes of a title challenge have completely dwindled. So given we now have a complete picture of Solskjaer’s reign, I take a look at what Solskjaer got right, but also what Solskjaer failed at, and what ultimately led to his sacking.
The big positive we can take from the Solskjaer reign is his resurrection of United’s club culture. Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho both ripped apart much of United’s identity, with Mourinho especially creating a toxic atmosphere around the club during the end of his tenure. Solskjaer managed to create a positive feeling around the club, with positive signings such as Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka in the 2019 summer window, and the January 2020 signing of Bruno Fernandes being arguably one of the best acquisitions in the club’s history.
The post-Fernandes run from his signing to the end of that Covid-struck season was outstanding from Manchester United, with them grabbing the most points from that period than any other side in the Premier League. Mason Greenwood’s development, as well as Scott McTominay becoming the first-team fixture he now is, highlights United’s academy being front-and-centre once again, something which is ingrained in the culture at United. Combined with United’s third and second place finishes in the 2020 and 2021 seasons, Solskjaer could be said to be a success in what he was brought in to do - to rebuild Manchester United into a team that could kick-on and challenge for the title.
The 2021/22 season was therefore going to be that make-or-break campaign for Solskjaer, and was backed in the transfer window with the signing of Rafael Varane, Jadon Sancho and the return of Cristiano Ronaldo. These were signings of intent by the club, and Solskjaer needed to prove that he can take this team and put them into a title fight. Ultimately, however, we saw that Solskjaer had reached his ceiling. The warning signs were most evident at the 2021 Europa League final, where a lacklustre United couldn’t get the win in extra-time. United’s shootout loss to Villereal was ultimately deserved given how negative the team were in their approach for a game that they really should be winning.
This loss really did highlight the biggest issue for Solskjaer and his coaching staff, that being their limits in tactical and coaching ability. Throughout his tenure, United’s identity has essentially been counter-attacking football, with the likes of Rashford, Anthony Martial and Greenwood using their blistering pace to hurt the opposition on the counter.
Fernandes has also been key to this set-up, with his long balls and control of the game allowing United to break with some regularity. United have been unable to play well any other way, and when United need to dominate a game against inferior opposition, they fail to get results due to their failure to break down low-blocks. Solskjaer’s inability to rotate effectively and make timely substitutions has also frustrated many a fan, and has probably also frustrated Sancho and Donny Van de Beek.
This tactical naivety all came to a head this campaign, with United deciding to push higher up the pitch and open up more in their play. Whilst on paper this may sound like a good idea, given the talent of the squad at Solskjaer’s hands and United’s need to challenge for a title, the reality however has been a complete mess on the pitch, with humiliating results against Liverpool, Manchester City, Leicester and Watford.
United’s coaching team have seemingly been unable to teach any sort of effective pressing, with players looking clueless to their positioning, awareness of who’s around them and their pressing triggers. This lack of quality coaching has resulted in United conceding the third most goals in the league, with only relegation-threatened Norwich and Newcastle conceding more.
Solskjaer was arguably given far more time than he should’ve warranted given these poor performances, and many fans have put criticism on the Glazers for a lack of any succession planning. The board did appear to have no idea on who they would’ve liked to have taken over the reins, with Antonio Conte slipping through their fingers, despite his heavy interest amid an horrific run from the Old Trafford side.
The lack of action being taken in the international break regarding Solskjaer has also been widely criticized, despite often regarded ‘smaller’ clubs such as Norwich and Aston Villa making appointments in this same period, and this has led many to wonder, including myself, why the board haven’t appointed personnel who are far better equipped to identify the issues at the footballing aspect of the club. The 4-1 loss to Watford however proved to be the final straw and it forced the Glazers' hand, with Solskjaer’s journey as Manchester United manager coming to an end.
Summarising Solskjaer’s time at the club, his reign was arguably the most positive and optimistic tenure since Sir Alex Ferguson, and he has left the club in a better place to succeed than when he first inherited the club. His departure was also met with much sadness from the players and the fans, with Ole being put in high regard by many.
However, he and his coaching staff had a very apparent ceiling to their ability, and the club has a chance now to appoint a manager who can not only take United to the next step, but also compete with the other elite managers in the Premier League. If the club can appoint a name such as Mauricio Pochettino or ErikTen Haag, then there is a very real possibility that United can finally be back, like Ferdinand said nearly 3 years ago, and challenging for the biggest prize in English football.