It’s been one year since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was appointed full time manager of Manchester United, and what a year it has been. Loads of ups and downs, the beginning of a major squad overhaul, and now a global pandemic to top it all off. The rest of the season was looking much brighter than it had just a couple months earlier. United were on an 11 game unbeaten run since the arrival of Portuguese Magnifico Bruno Fernandes and the potential return of Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford was on the horizon. Champions League football looked to be back on the cards after a rough start to the season, which will likely be crucial to the club’s rebuild plans.
It’s not been a walk in the park, but it certainly hasn’t been as bad as some make it out to be. In this article I hope to explore a bit of everything in looking back at a year under Ole.
The Good: Excitement
Whether you’re Ole in or Ole out, it’s hard to deny that there has been somewhat of a return of exciting football. It’s certainly more of a case recently than it was earlier in Solskjaer’s reign as permanent manager, but it’s still a credit to his tactical approach and the players that he has made central to the team.
Manchester United fans love a good counter attacking move — or at least they say they do on Twitter as they share the Park-Rooney-Ronaldo goal vs Arsenal.
Man United scored one of the greatest counter-attacking goal of all time against Arsenal in the Champions League.— Match Bet (@MatchBetTips) March 25, 2020
Ronaldo ➡️ Park ⤴️ Rooney ↗️ Ronaldo ⚽️
This is FergieBall at it's peak! pic.twitter.com/QF7vFBRQpx
Solskjaer’s side may not be living up to those expectations just yet, but at full strength they’re a force to be reckoned with on the break. Fred and Scott McTominay’s midfield development has made them reliable ball winners and forward passers, the arrival of Bruno Fernandes has worked wonders on United’s attacking movement and buildup, and even Nemanja Matić has had a bit of a revival of late. But perhaps the best development has taken place in the forward line, with Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood reaching 16 and 12 goals respectively. However, the greatest jump in playmaking and goal-scoring ability has without a doubt been made by Marcus Rashford.
Rashford has been in superstar form since Solskjaer’s arrival, scoring 29 goals in all competitions, including a personal best 19 this season before getting injured in January. He’s been moved back out to a left-winger/wide-forward role, but takes great freedom on and off the ball to orchestrate attacks and move across the forward line. Unfortunately he hasn’t had the opportunity to play with Bruno yet, and has only played a handful of times with Pogba due to the Frenchman’s own injury struggles, but his possible return in April was hotly anticipated before the suspension of football. He was the driving force for Ole’s side for much of the season, and seems to be making the jump from potential to production.
The football isn’t great every match, and certainly the quality isn’t in place yet to collect enough points for a title challenge, but Solskjaer’s style has been kinder on the eye, and has kept United competitive in cup competitions as well as in Champions League qualification. Goal fests against Tranmere, Club Brugge, Derby, and LASK featured semi-rotated squads as well, and though they might not be impressive Ws on the record sheet, it’s worth remembering that before Ole, United were not very regular scorers of 4, 5, or 6 goals in a match post-SAF. United are starting to open teams up, and if Solskjaer continues to spend smartly in the transfer window they can add to a growing cast of long-term first teamers.
The Bad: Inconsistency
Perhaps no adjective sums up the past 365 days of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on the pitch better than “Inconsistency.” From his first match as permanent manager Solskjaer and co. have struggled to emulate the run of form that got him the job in the first place. Though that has changed lately, it’s impossible to ignore the dramatically inconsistent form that Manchester United have had under Solskjaer’s leadership. In the final 8 games of the 18/19 Premier League season they went 2 wins, 2 draws, and 4 losses, missing out on Champions League qualification and crashing out of both the UEFA Champions League and FA Cup at the quarter-final stage. This season they have 12 wins, 9 draws, and 8 losses in the Premier League, but due to rampant inconsistency by 18 of the other 19 teams they still sit in 5th place, just 3 points back from a Champions League spot. Still, United didn’t string 2 wins together in the league until December, and even in the recent unbeaten run, draws against Wolves and Everton have underscored Solskjaer’s weakness in tactical adjustments and substitutions.
It is well worth mentioning that a lot of problems have resulted from injuries and a lack of quality and depth in squad selection, particularly in midfield, but Solskjaer’s unwillingness to shake things up has at times proven costly. Solskjaer likes having a no. 10 sort of attacking midfielder in behind the front line, but until the arrival of Bruno Fernandes his options were an unrecognizable, low-confidence Jesse Lingard and turnover machine Andreas Pereira. The lack of production from these two was a major problem, and even when United won games they weren’t close to the reason why, yet Ole rarely tried a formation change, or even other players at the position. Most of United’s production came from the wings, and Marcus Rashford literally broke his back (sort of) after shouldering an enormous creative burden. Martial and Greenwood have also found the scoresheet regularly, but don’t have the same work rate and link-up game that made Rashford so important to the side.
Perhaps he is a bit limited this season with personnel options, but Solskjaer must develop as a tactician and game manager. The big games/cup games are not generally a problem for him, but picking up points week by week clearly requires something more from him.
The Ugly: Uncertainty
The future of football in general is murky right now, as the sport has rightly shut down amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic, but for Manchester united in particular there is a lot of uncertainty that only the end of this season could have remedied. United had improved and were coming for Chelsea and Leicester in the top 4 race before the suspension, but so much is now left unanswered with the rest of the season in jeopardy. Would the unbeaten run have continued, or would the wheels have fallen off as they have done previously under Ole? Would Pogba actually consider staying, and if so how does that affect United’s summer budget after spending on Bruno? How does uncertainty about European football in general affect those plans?
So much has been thrown into limbo because of the COVID-19 crisis, but for Solskjaer he’s losing a tremendous opportunity to prove his worth as a manager. After reaching the League Cup semi-final, he has United on two more potential deep cup runs that may not be finished. He is slowly but surely bringing in talent in the transfer market, and may not be far off from a squad that gives him a proper chance to compete on multiple fronts. With this progress now cast in uncertainty it is impossible to fairly evaluate his season, despite the clear positives and negatives.