The departure of star striker Romelu Lukaku bewildered pundits and journalists. The media couldn’t wrap their heads around why Manchester United would let Lukaku go without a replacement, and claimed it was a prime example of the club’s disarray. It wasn’t.
This move was indicative of United sticking to a well-thought-out plan. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer saw a player that openly didn’t want to be at the club, and as manager felt that the priority should be to move him on. Why have an unhappy player in the dressing room and base another season and system of play around Lukaku if he has one foot out the door? While United ultimately tried and failed to get a striker to fill Lukaku’s boots, Solskjaer’s priority wasn’t to replace Lukaku, it was to move him on and rebuild.
Solskjaer has established a philosophy similar to that of his mentor, Sir Alex Ferguson, since he signed a three-year contract in March 2019: phase out disgruntled or older members of the squad (especially those on large contracts), invest in youth through the academy, and find players with something to prove at reasonable fees.
As a result, for the first time in seven years, United are not only showing signs of sustained success, but they may have also inadvertently identified their longer-term director of football.
Unlike his predecessors and the media, Solskjaer recognized that a desperate top four finish didn’t automatically translate to forward momentum. In fact, in his case it would likely mean the opposite. Solskjaer had inherited a squad where almost half of the players didn’t fit into the framework that he believed would carry United to sustained success. While keeping these experienced players on-board might have increased United’s chances of qualifying for top four, Solskjaer let them go and decided to gamble with his future and potentially sacrifice a Champions League spot for the long-term sustainability.
Solskjaer’s short spell in charge has seen him clear out nine players from the first-team. That’s HALF of what would have been his regular matchday squad. Solskjaer believed players like Marouane Fellaini, Matteo Darmian, Ashley Young, and Chris Smalling were simply not good enough to play for United, and he was right. It was time for players like Brandon Williams, Scott McTominay, and Mason Greenwood to start transitioning into the team.
While Solskjaer’s policies of responsible spending and relying on youth don’t seem like difficult standards to uphold, it takes guts and conviction for him to implement such principles in the short-term when a team is in free-fall, like United had been.
Clearing out the squad meant United fielded the youngest team in the league and struggled against mediocre sides. As a result, Solskjaer’s tactics and his managerial pedigree were called into question repeatedly. Although, it wasn’t Solskjaer’s tactics that led to these performances, rather it was United’s general lack of quality.
When United lined up against Liverpool in their 2–0 loss earlier in the season, their front three consisted of Anthony Martial, Dan James, and Andreas Pereira. Compare that to Liverpool’s stellar front three of Sadio Mane, Mo Salah, and Roberto Firmino. It’s like a Ferrari versus a Fiat.
Despite United’s clear lack of quality, the Reds remarkably boasted the third strongest defense in the league, fielded the youngest players on average, and still eventually finished in third place. Solskjaer was subtly making moves.
Having blown millions in the transfer market for years, United’s signings under Solskjaer have been sensational. Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka have injected stability to United’s backline. Bruno Fernandes has also given United the creative spark they desperately needed, while Odion Ighalo seems to be a cheap and effective addition to give their attack more depth. Even Daniel James, who before coming to United had never played a Premier League game, has shown the potential to prosper. While Maguire and Fernandes’ acquisitions were more costly than Solskjaer’s other signings, their quality and drive to succeed with United have won fans over and highlighted Solskjaer’s policy to buy smart.
Even the decision not to sign teenage sensation Erling Haaland, something United were heavily criticized for, was born out of pragmatism. United refused to accept a £63 million buyout clause inserted by Haaland’s agent Mino Raiola, which meant that any club could swoop in and buy Haaland from United for a set fee. Given Haaland’s rapid improvement, that figure could end up being half of the teenager’s worth. Rather than accept the contract, Solskjaer decided the clause would ultimately hurt United’s returns in the long-run. This is an incredibly unorthodox move for a coach to make given Solskjaer’s lack of job security and the impact Haaland could have had.
Even though Solskjaer’s done a much better job as United’s manager than many give him credit for, his focus on the long-term and United’s overall strategy strongly mirrors the qualities of a sporting director. Most managers in top-level football are typically focused on short-term results and their own individual success at the helm, while the sporting director is left to oversee the long-term strategy. Solskjaer appears to simultaneously be doing both.
Whether Solskjaer is eventually sacked as manager or leaves by his own accord, United should consider keeping him on-board in a strategic capacity to ensure United’s principles don’t change depending on whoever the manager is. Despite an impressive run towards the end of the season and solid defensive record, Solskjaer’s managerial acumen hasn’t fully been tested given that he’s managed a very green squad. Until Solskjaer has a squad of players with the quality to compete, it’ll be tough to assess if he’s worthy to be United’s manager.
However, if the time comes where Solskjaer is has to be replaced as manager, United should offer him the chance to transition into the role of football director. It’s a job that he’s proven that he’s suited for already.