Manchester United kick off the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer era on Saturday in South Wales. After parting ways with José Mourinho this week, the United board appointed club legend Solskjaer as caretaker manager. It’s likely to be a brief reunion — with the former Red returning to FC Molde in the summer — but hopefully he can lead United to a stronger position before season’s end.
For Solskjaer, this opportunity is a dream come true. And, coincidentally, his opening act comes at the same stadium where his managerial career nearly imploded four years ago. Back in 2014, Solskjaer was one of the world’s hottest coaching prospects when Vincent Tan convinced him to take over struggling Cardiff City.
Ole inherited a defensively-oriented squad that never meshed with his more free-flowing style of play. The results were poor, the Bluebirds relegated, and Solskjaer limped into the next season before a September sacking. He didn’t win many fans in Wales, but Cardiff’s problems start at the top. Solskjaer’s biggest mistake was taking the job in the first place.
Midseason managerial changes usually breed chaos and finger-pointing, but Solskjaer couldn’t ask for a better situation. This weekend’s match at Cardiff City starts a fairly tame festive period for United, with no matches against upper-half competition until mid-January. This run presents Solskjaer with the perfect chance to put his best foot forward and ease into his new role.
The 45 year-old caretaker’s sunny personality, attacking philosophy, and long history with United all stand in stark contrast to Mourinho. Whether he can add anything to the club’s trophy case like his predecessor, though, remains a question.
Solskjaer inherits the same injury crisis that so vexed Mourinho in his final weeks at Old Trafford. Most of the club’s defenders are dealing with various niggles, although Victor Lindelöf’s shock return against Liverpool provided a welcome boost to the backline. Eric Bailly stepped up after a late Chris Smalling injury and played one of his better matches of the season.
Diogo Dalot, Matteo Darmian, and Anthony Martial — who all bravely made themselves available last weekend — should be close to a clean bill of health. Alexis Sánchez remains out until the new year.
At some level, though, this is all about Paul Pogba. The frosty relationship between Mourinho and the club’s record signing reached a breaking point this season and ultimately hastened the manager’s exit. Pogba never got off the bench against Liverpool last weekend, although his recent performances hardly gave Mourinho a reason to bring him back into the side.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer must get the best out of Pogba. The two have a positive history — with Solskjaer coaching the midfielder with United’s reserves in 2008 and 2009. Ever since, he’s spoken glowingly about the player’s potential and even mentioned that, if given the chance, he’d build his whole team around Pogba.
Pogba’s certainly got the talent to be the first name on Solskjaer’s team sheet, but his effort and attitude this season have been just woeful. And that’s probably putting it mildly. If Solskjaer can get Pogba playing up to his £89 million price tag, then mission accomplished.
Cardiff City hover just above the relegation places with eleven losses already this season. The Bluebirds were a trendy pick to finish bottom in their first season back in the Premier League, so their early struggles come as no surprise.
Neil Warnock’s side don’t necessarily play like the typical relegation fodder. Last season in the Championship, the Bluebirds scored an incredible 21 goals from non-penalty set pieces. That mark led the league and reinforced the club’s reputation for route-one football. In the Premier League, though, Warnock has urged his players to shed that style of play and embrace a more expansive game.
Whether that works or not could be the difference between top-flight survival and a quick return to the Championship.
Last weekend, Cardiff lost 3-2 at Watford. The hosts jumped all over the Bluebirds and led 3-0 at halftime. To their credit, Warnock’s men never gave up, battling back to force a nervy ending.
A word of warning for United: Cardiff City play far better at home than on the road, including three wins on the bounce at the snappily-named Cardiff City Stadium. They’ve earned just one away point all season, meaning that their home performance alone has kept the club out of the drop zone.
Everything suggests that Manchester United plan to put the full-court press on Mauricio Pochettino this summer. But Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who so famously won United their prized treble in 1999, can make a big statement about his own managerial qualities with a successful turn in the Old Trafford hot-seat.
Solskjaer’s upbeat personality and playing style will be welcomed by his new players and supporters alike. And, if good results follow, the sky’s the limit for both club and manager. It all starts Saturday.