In every sport, preseason is the time to start anew; to forget about the ills of before and let expectancy soar. The Cleveland Browns dare to dream while the Atlanta Falcons still believe their Superbowl window is open. In Manchester, preseason looked to be more difficult than ever before, given the nature of United’s dramatic fall at the end of last season. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had his work cut out for him, and possibly even a dramatic uphill battle to save his job despite his initial barnstorming start to life at Old Trafford.
The problems at the outset were many. United had slumped to new lows in 2018-19 while Manchester City and Liverpool became powerhouses. Not only that, but Liverpool won the Champions League and shoulders slumped even further in Manchester. Questions loomed regarding the futures of important players. Paul Pogba fueled speculation that he wanted to leave while Ander Herrera was certain to depart. David De Gea and Juan Mata also seemed to have reached contract impasses. The #GlazersOut movement appeared online and churned unrest in the fanbase.
There was no football to distract United supporters who were then duly appalled by Jesse Lingard’s Snapchat antics. There were doubts about whether Paul Pogba would return to preseason training, and when he did, he appeared to need to be separated from Jesse Lingard on a video released by United’s own Twitter page.
Yet as the month of July has kicked on, calmness returned to Manchester United as they prepared for the season at the far side of the globe and United have started to resemble something of their old machine once again. It helps that the club are now creating their own newsfeed again. The idle, aimless summer chatter was harsh this year and returning to training, working hard and getting goals in preseason all return a sense of homeostasis.
The return to training is not the only reason for positivity.
For all that may come in the months ahead, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer appears to have imparted changes at Old Trafford that supporters had long yearned for. Supporters have quietly rumbled about the way Manchester United play. Not wanting to sound like Hammers supporters decrying ‘the West Ham Way,’ there has been a feeling that Manchester United always played in a specific way. It’s a cultural cliché at this stage, but the Busby and Ferguson teams of Manchester United were built on fast players playing with width.
There had been annoyance in recent seasons as this was the complete opposite philosophy to that of their former manager José Mourinho. It’s not a type of football that was employed by Louis Van Gaal either and something David Moyes said he wished to implement, but lacked the players. Solskjaer has quietly gone about bringing in players that fit his system, while trying to actively jettison players such as Marouane Fellaini and Romelu Lukaku who do not.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer might have induced a slight cringe reflex in certain quarters with regards to mentioning the past; training at the Cliff, meeting with Roy Keane and the multiple references to his European Cup winning goal at the Camp Nou in the run-up to the Barcelona away tie, but he is consciously aware of Manchester United’s history, their culture and the importance of a club identity in a way like few have in recent years; in terms of players, management or boardroom level. This should not be taken for granted.
Ed Woodward may not get Manchester United but it’s refreshing to know that the manager is fighting the cause for what it means to be a Red. Ole has not come to Old Trafford trying to upscale an Everton project, to replicate a decades old Ajax model or an Inter 2010 team. Ole has come to Old Trafford to develop a new team that aligns with the club’s DNA, something few working in Old Trafford or their Mayfair offices seem to understand anymore.
Solskjaer has been the manager that the supporters yearned for in many ways. He has come into the team and attempted to play the type of football supporters wanted; more running definitely, but with that comes more adventure and excitement, the return of Roy of the Rovers intuitive style football that gives supporters something to cheer about. He has trusted youth and promoted from within, and signed young English talent, something for which the supporters and the media are often grateful.
But there’s another challenge for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer approaching. Preseason is easy. The training is straightforward, the games are inconsequential, tame affairs. There is nothing at stake, and in this environment, the Norwegian has done impeccably well. Playing with width, promoting youth and playing in a way that is easy on the eye is admirable, but it is only worth something if the Norwegian sticks to his mantra when the chips are really down.
Manchester United supporters have seen four preseasons of Andreas Pereira looking ready to step up and stake a claim to a place in the squad. In two of those seasons, he opted to go out on loan to La Liga. By the third preseason, he had a new position and looked to provide genuine competition to Nemanja Matić in the Manchester United midfield. He played the first game of last season against Leicester and did okay, yet after a poor first half performance against Brighton in the next game, he was substituted and realistically, never really seen again under Mourinho.
Similarly, Angel Gomes made his debut against Crystal Palace in the final league game of Mourinho’s first season two years ago. He has barely been seen again until this summer’s tour.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needs to be stronger than this. A club like Manchester United need their manager to be brave. Preseason is great when the pressure is off, but the next step in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s managerial career is bravery. The balls to stick to your principles and show your faith in a squad and a system when the chips are down.
It’s been a good start so far.