As football’s lockdown continues, a number of media outlets have taken the opportunity to reflect on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s performance since his permanent appointment one year ago today.
It has been a year of ups and downs for Solskjaer and his team, who currently lie fifth in the Premier League and have reached the quarter final of the FA Cup and last 16 of the Europa League.
The verdict of The Times’ Paul Hirst is mixed. He notes that ‘Solskjaer has won 46 per cent of his matches in permanent charge, which is the worst record of any United manager since Dave Sexton’.
Hirst also notes that ‘sloppy defensive errors and a lack of ruthlessness have proven costly… United have averaged 15 shots per game over the last 12 months, compared to 12.8 during Solskjaer’s caretaker spell, but United’s goal-per-game ratio has dropped from 2.1 to 1.6.’
‘Solskjaer has endured three separate slumps, one towards the end of last season, and twice this term: once at the turn of the year and another in October when, Solskjaer’s staff feared the sack after a five-match winless streak.’
However, the reporter gives Solskjaer credit for playing attractive football, giving chances to academy graduates, taking decisive action in the face of players such as Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez causing dressing room unrest and for keeping faith in the likes of Nemanja Matic and Fred.
Meanwhile, The Mail’s James Dutton has praised Solskjaer for his transfer business, both incoming and outgoing. The signings of Harry Maguire, Daniel James, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Bruno Fernandes are seen by the outlet as successes and the shedding of Chris Smalling, Antonio Valencia, Marcos Rojo, Matteo Darmian and Alexis Sanchez on loan as equally important.
Dutton, however, says the Norwegian ‘erred in his desperation to offload Romelu Lukaku. It put too much pressure on the shoulders of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, both of whom have suffered injury-interrupted seasons and don’t look like natural No 9s.’
The reporter praised Solskjaer’s tactical performance, claiming that José Mourinho’s methods have been shown to be ‘outdated’ but that ‘Solskjaer immediately repurposed United when he took charge, willing them to run more and express themselves. Instead of setting them up with the opposition in mind, they were let off the leash.’
The Sun’s Neil Custis has also written an ‘annual review’ for the United boss, although this has the whiff of another Ed Woodward promotional piece sponsored by the executive vice chairman’s PR manager, former Sun reporter Neil Ashton.
Custis reports that in appointing Solskjaer on a permanent basis a year ago, the board were doing what the majority of fans would also do, but that after a run of bad results, ‘those who had not said anything at the time of his appointment were suddenly coming out of the woodwork to hammer Woodward for his decision’.
‘Still while all around were losing their heads, two men remained calm.’
‘Solskjaer had talked at length with Woodward during his caretaker period about his vision for the future.’
‘Time is a precious commodity in football and few managers seem to get it but Woodward and the Glazers were convinced of the new way.’
‘So 12 months on, did Woodward get it right? I for one thought it was right then and is still right now.’
In truth, any annual review of the manager’s performance has to be mixed. United’s league position of fifth is as much due to other teams such as Spurs and Arsenal enduring their own crises. A 41% win rate in the Premier League is simply not good enough and while losing the likes of Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford for a large part of the season will clearly take its toll, teams such as Sheffield United, who do not have any such star names in their squad, have a better points-to-games ratio.
Overplaying the likes of Rashford and McTominay could have contributed to their sustaining serious injuries this season and overplaying out of form players such as Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira has led to a number of poor results.
There is also the issue of whether Solskjaer has a ‘Plan B’ when his high-press counter-attack tactic does not work.
The fact of the matter is that United’s turn in fortunes before the coronavirus brought football to a halt was more to do with the arrival of the talismanic Bruno Fernandes than to anything the boss had done. And it is unclear as to how much Solskjaer himself pushed for the Portuguese international’s transfer, having reportedly been more keen on Leicester City’s James Maddison.
On the other hand, Solskjaer has seemingly managed to do something that three previous managers failed to and the one thing that is most important of all in football, which is to unite the dressing room.
The Norwegian has also managed to achieve the one thing that is most important to Manchester United’s DNA: to play attractive, attacking football. That alone is not enough to bring success, of course, but it does help to keep fans patient which in turn could be what has kept Solskjaer in a job despite such an indifferent win ratio during his tenure.
While football is on lockdown, try your hand at our quiz below that tests your knowledge about the times when Manchester United or its players have been banned, bombed or blocked from playing.