Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s contract extension at Manchester United until 2024 has brought a mixed reaction from fans, and perhaps for good reason.
The Norwegian has now managed United through 151 matches, winning 85, drawing 32 and losing 34, for a points average of 1.91 per game.
Solskjaer has now had more time than any of Sir Alex’s successors to build a team and is yet to bring a trophy to Old Trafford, which both Van Gaal and Mourinho were able to do.
So it is no wonder that the jury is still out and some may say it is unusual that his contract has been extended at this stage, as it was clear he would be going nowhere between now and June 2022. It smacks of the same knee-jerk reaction that prompted executive vice chairman Ed Woodward to make the Norwegian’s caretakership permanent after a good run of games in 2019, rather than wait until the end of the season.
Had Woodward waited until June 2019, it is frankly unlikely that Solskjaer would have been given the job on a permanent basis.
There are, undoubtedly, things that Solskjaer has done brilliantly as United manager. He has brought out the best in players such as Luke Shaw; he has given academy players more minutes than any other top eight club; and he appears to have created a spirit of harmony with the dressing room, which had clearly been broken and factionalised under Mourinho.
Solskjaer has also given the team an identity again. He has steered them through the bizarre and uncertain times of Covid-19 and caught and overtaken Liverpool in the Premier League.
There are also things that most would agree Solskjaer has not done so well. That lack of silverware is a big one, especially having been presented an opportunity on a golden platter in last season’s Europa League. He has also failed to find a formation that makes the best use of one of his star players, Paul Pogba. He has not shown tactical flexibility, not solved the problem of how to break down the low block, not solved United’s embarrassingly poor defending set pieces, nor established who his best goalkeeper is.
Solskjaer’s reluctance to rotate his side let to tiredness and arguably, a lot of unnecessary injuries and his reticence in using substitutes earlier, likewise, could have added to that tiredness and also instilled a lack of match fitness, confidence and rhythm among his squad players, who, when they get the chance, have not always been up to speed.
Most if not all fans would agree those strengths and weaknesses, but there are other areas that fans debate constantly. One of those is signings. That is a hard one to debate given that nobody really knows how much say the boss has had in identifying any of them.
On the other hand, sceptics say that it was Mourinho who had first identified Maguire and Fernandes and that Cavani could have been brought in six months earlier when Odion Ighalo was signed on loan on deadline day instead. And why, still, the lack of a quality defensive midfielder when it clear for all to see that it is a major weakness?
There is also the issue of why the likes of Alex Telles and Donny van de Beek, two of United’s three big signings along with Cavani last summer, were bought and then hardly used all season. Wasted transfer money, in retrospect? Daniel James is another dubious signing and in terms of outgoings, the futures of Diogo Dalot, Jesse Lingard, Andreas Pereira, Axel Tuanzebe, Brandon Williams and Tahith Chong still remain unresolved.
Then there is the question of how Erling Haaland and Jude Bellingham slipped through the net and ended up at Borussia Dortmund – almost certainly not Ole’s fault, but those things did, unfortunately, happen on his watch. Others say that, particularly in Haaland’s case, Solskjaer’s knowledge of the player and friendship with the family was a real strength for United in negotiations that were ultimately lost for other reasons.
Some believe that Paul Pogba, via his agent Mino Raiola, has hinted that he wants to leave United because he does not believe that the current coaching team is sophisticated enough to bring the success to the club that he wants to be a part of. Others say Solskjaer’s management has put a smile on Pogba’s face again and tempted him to stay despite all the damage that had been done by his fractious relationship with Mourinho.
Another debate is playing style; some fans argue that Solskjaer has re-introduced a more Fergie-esque, attacking, swashbuclking style to the team, while others believe that he has been far too defensive and negative, especially against big sides, constantly employing a two-man pivot even against weak opposition and bringing on defensive substitutions rather than going for the kill when United have had teams on the ropes.
Overall, the main debate among fans is whether Solskjaer is a young manager who needs to be given time to learn on the job and grow into the great manager he shows signs of becoming. Some believe that to be the case while others argue that he needs to stop ‘hiding’ behind the excuse of being in a ‘rebuilding process’ and start delivering.
Solskjaer is 48. This puts him exactly half way up the Premier League manager age charts, with Bielsa, Benitez, Bruce, Moyes, Klopp, Dyche, Hasenhuttl, Guardiola and Smith ahead of him, Brendan Rogers the same age and Tuchel, Espirito Santo, Frank, Potter, Farke, Lage, Vieira, Xisco and baby of the bunch, Michel Arteta, all younger than he.
Whether you are ‘Ole in’ or ‘Ole out’, or, like a lot of us, a little of each depending on how the team is performing, one thing is for sure: we should be a lot closer to finding out whether he is the long-term solution successor to the great Sir Alex Ferguson by the end of 2021/22, if not before.