Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first complete season in charge of Manchester United is (finally, almost) in the books, and for the first time since December 2018 we can give him a proper evaluation. This was a long Premier League season, not just because it ended 352 days after it began, but because of all the different things that happened.
In his first complete league season, Solskjaer lead the Red Devils to third place — albeit with just 66 points, a reflection more of the quality of the league than the quality of United. In terms of placement in the table it’s United’s second best finish since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. In terms of points total its the same number they collected last year when they finished sixth.
In a vacuum, 66 points and third place is simply not good enough.
But of course, this season wasn’t taking place in a vacuum. Solskjaer entered the season with a lot on his plate. By the end of last season it was clear United needed a rebuild, and not just a “paint over the cracks and redo the siding” rebuild like José Mourinho provides, but a full “tear everything down and start again from scratch” rebuild.
Solskjaer needed to strip the squad of deadwood, lay the foundations for the type of squad he would want going forward, implement a new system for the players — nearly all of whom were inexperienced when it came to being the leaders of the team — and assess his squad. Which young players had a future here? Which academy players were up the quality of Manchester United? Could this young player adequately replace that older player? In summer number two, where were United’s most pressing needs going to be?
To make matters even more difficult, the agent of the team’s best player was angling for a move to Real Madrid.
Solskjaer’s plan was to turn this team over to United’s exciting young players. That meant removing any player who may have stood in their way, or who would have sulked at having their status challenged by younger, hungrier players. He was successful in cutting away the deadwood, but in order to let his young players develop he had to leave their path open. That meant not bringing in established players to replace the ones that left.
It was a big risk — he turned the scoring burden over to two players whose career best Premier League goal tallies were 11 and 10 goals respectively. His best striker off the bench was a 17-year-old with one Premier League start.
The squad was very thin and very inexperienced. The hope was that the young players would develop and grow into a formidable team. They were learning a new system and developing new skills and responsibilities as the season progressed, but this wasn’t going to happen overnight. There were going to be bumps along the road. But this is still Manchester United. You still need to get results.
For Solskjaer, the season couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start. Within four games, two of his three most important players were injured. United were dropping points left and right. By the middle of October, United were 14th in the table.
Of all the things Solskjaer went through this season, those first two months are probably where he deserves the most credit. Despite falling in the table, Solskjaer never wavered from his strategy. He didn’t change his tactics. Rather, he continued to build his system so the players could get used to it.
Most importantly, he didn’t overwhelm the youngsters. It would have been really easy to throw 17-year-old Mason Greenwood into the starting XI, but Solskjaer didn’t. He knew he wasn’t ready yet and he didn’t want to harm the young starlet’s development. Did that hurt United in the table? Probably, but Solskjaer had the long-term view in mind.
Heading into the October international break United had nine points in eight games. They had scored two goals since August and their only goal without Paul Pogba on the pitch came from the penalty spot. Solskjaer’s detractors were LOUD.
Coming out of the international break United faced Liverpool, who had yet to drop any points. It was easy to think things were going to get worse. It was easy to think Solskjaer was in over his head.
It was also easy to see that United were just a team completely devoid of talented players. It’s hard to win in the Premier League without talent.
That’s when Solskjaer started to show his tactical acumen. He devised a great game plan to get a draw against Liverpool. Anthony Martial returned that game and suddenly United started winning. A few weeks later they eliminated Chelsea from the League Cup at Stamford Bridge. In December they defeated Mourinho and Pep Guardiola in the span of three days — with two distinctly different styles of play.
Solskjaer has a list of impressive achievements this season but it can be argued that his performance in the first half of the season was his best. He never lost faith in himself or what he was trying to establish.
By January it was clear that United had a certain style — built around a strong number 10 — and that neither Andreas Pereira nor Jesse Lingard were good enough to play there.
So by the turn of the year, two objectives were completed:
- Establish a system
- Assess if certain players are good enough
Despite the inconsistencies — and the lack of talent — Solskjaer kept his team within striking distance of the top four through January when they could obtain the one obvious missing piece: a number 10.
Bruno Fernandes arrived and made an instant impact. That’s in part to his skill and personality, but it’s also in part because the system was already in place to maximize his abilities. The team didn’t need to learn a new style to accommodate Fernandes. Rather, now that they had a competent player in that position, the team immediately took off.
As it turns out, there is something to the “you need talented players to win” thing. This season United had to play seven league games with only one of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Paul Pogba, and Bruno Fernandes available: they won seven points in those games (one point per match) and scored four goals (two from penalty spot).
They played 19 games with just two of them available for selection (half the season): their record in those games was 10W 7D 2L (37 points 1.95 points per match), scoring 33 goals (1.74 goals per game).
They had at least three of those players available 12 times this year. They won seven, drew four, and lost once (25 points, 2.08 points per match), scoring 28 goals (2.33 goals per match).
Maybe United’s slow start wasn’t so much down to Solskjaer and more down to the fact that Andreas Pereira, Jesse Lingard, Scott McTominay, Fred, Nemanja Matić, Juan Mata, and Daniel James aren’t good enough to carry a Premier League team themselves?
United were 14th after nine games this year (when Martial came back from injury), sitting with just 10 points (1.11 points per match). From that point on United won 56 points over the next 29 games — only Liverpool and Manchester City won more. That 1.93 points per match pace would get United about 73 points over a full season. Still nothing to write home about, but that would be the most a first year manager got post-Ferguson.
In terms of building something, it’s an encouraging sign to see a manager implementing a system and improving as the season went on — both in terms of performances and points won.
By nearly all accounts, Solskjaer was a rousing success this season. He had two forwards in Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial who had never scored more than 13 and 17 goals in a season and oversaw them producing career best seasons with 22 goals apiece — with the latter rounds of the Europa League still to come. He unearthed a teenage phenom in Greenwood and saw him equal a club record with 18 goals, and now Greenwood can even potentially win the Europa League golden boot.
Fred entered the season as the fourth choice midfielder — and spent most of the season as United’s best midfielder. Nemanja Matić and Solskjaer didn’t see eye to eye at the start of the season, and instead of getting rid of him, Solskjaer turned him into one of the most important players in the team.
New signing Daniel James provided four goals and seven assists in all competitions. Aaron Wan-Bissaka was a lockdown right-back whose attacking abilities noticeably improved over the second half of the season. Harry Maguire helped turn a defense that conceded 54 goals last year to one that conceded 36 — and that’s with countless mistakes from their goalkeeper.
Solskjaer promoted youth from the academy, finding a new left-back in Brandon Williams, and began working James Garner into the team. He secured qualification to the knockout rounds of the Europa League early enough that he could take a U23 team to Astana, handing out debuts left and right.
He made the semifinals of two cup competitions and is still alive in a third. The only blemish on his mark was he played Chelsea and Manchester City eight times this year and won six of them, but the two he lost were 3-1 defeats to knock them out of the cups.
At the start of the season no one in their right mind would have expected United, or really anyone, to compete with Liverpool or Manchester City. Finishing as the best of the rest of the league is nothing to shake your finger at.
This United team obviously isn’t at the standards of great United teams of the past. They’re trying to get to that level — and the sky high expectations that come with it — but it’ll take time.
All things considered, 66 points — especially given where United were after 10 games — and third place this season is a success. But make no mistake about it, 66 points next season is not ok.
This was year one of a rebuild. The standards for year two are higher. There needs to be improvement. If we want United to truly be back, we need a team that competes for trophies — every one of them — and improves their standing in the league.
Everything needs to be kept in perspective. Solskjaer hasn’t won anything (yet), but he has changed the culture of the squad, and successfully handed the reigns of the team to a much younger group. Now United need to add depth this summer and have their players continue to get even better.