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Solskjær - The Player's Choice!

Added by Philip Meese on 08 Jan 2019 20:04

Why Ole Gunnar Solskjær might be exactly the manager Manchester United have been looking for.

By Philip Meese

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Ole Gunnar Solskjær has breezed back into his natural home at Manchester United, and immediately lifted what was a very sombre mood around the club. The Norwegian has won his first five games since taking the position of caretaker manager and reports have emerged that the players are in favour of him being given the job full time.

Despite his fast start, which has seen some of the most entertaining football played by the Red Devils in years, there are still plenty of fans who have reservations about him being José Mourinho’s permanent replacement.

Legacy

Ed Woodward was always going to be in a win-win situation by appointing Solskjær until the end of the season. There are few players that have represented the club down the years, especially in the Premier League era, that are as universally loved by United fans. You would be hard pressed to find one that had a bad word to say about him. His commitment, professionalism added to the fact that he gave most Red Devils their greatest ever moment in football add up to one word; legend.

Woodward has come in for a lot of heat from the Stretford End faithful over the last few years, and earlier this season a banner was flown over Turf Moor during the Burnley game, declaring him a ‘specialist in failure’. He had to do something to appease the supporters, and with Mourinho gone here was his chance.

The current situation is also a win-win for Solskjær because, unless he got the club relegated, there is no chance he could damage his legacy at Old Trafford. As long as he got the team playing a brand of football that was more exciting than that of his two predecessors, not the hardest feat in the world, he was always going to be a popular appointment with the fans. If he is given the job on a permanent basis, and it doesn’t go too well, that might be a different story. But given the state the club was in when he took over, for now it seems he is safe.

Natural

The day after he was appointed, millions of fans around the world watched his first interview on MUTV. The reaction on social media afterwards indicated that the majority couldn’t wait to watch his first game. It was worth the wait, as Solskjær instructed his players to go out and play their natural game, which resulted in a 5-1 win away to Cardiff City. Finally, it seemed, United had someone who played with the emphasis the the opposition should fear them, not the other way around.

It was clear from that interview that Cardiff fans should be very worried, and it’s probably fair to say that most probably wished that United had waited a week to sack Mourinho. Solskjær, having spent almost fifteen years at Old Trafford as player and coach, knows exactly what the fans expect in terms of how the team play. As a result, United scored five goals in a game for the first time in over half a decade.

There is one notable difference between the Norwegian and the three men who were in the manager’s seat before him (not counting Ryan Giggs). Next time Solskjær does a pre-match press conference, watch how at ease he is with his situation and compare it with the others. David Moyes was overawed, like he didn’t believe he was good enough for the job. Louis van Gaal was defensive to the point of being offensive (more so than any of his teams) and Mourinho had the impression of a man who wanted to be sacked so that the club had to pay up his contract. By contrast, Solskjær brings a pleasant disposition and the impression of a man completely comfortable with the demands of both the job and the fans. Possibly a man who was born to do this job.

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Credentials

Solskjær was one of those players who it always seemed would make a natural coach. By his own admission, one of the reasons he was so successful coming off the bench is that he would study the defenders he would be up against when introduced. He would look for their weaknesses, even the slightest thing that he could exploit. As a result he scored 17 Premier League goals from the bench in his career, a record until Jermaine Defoe overtook him.

When he was forced to retire through injury in 2007, Solskjær took up a coaching role and became manager of United’s reserve team. He won the Premier Reserve League, as well as both the Manchester and Lancashire Senior Cups between 2009 & 2010. This led to him being headhunted by Molde, the club United bought him from in 1996. In his first season he led the club to their first ever league title, and repeated the feat the following year. He also won the Norwegian Cup in 2013, by which time he had invoked the interest of several Premier League sides.

A lot has been made of Solskjær’s first job in the Premier League with Cardiff, ironically the first team he faced as United boss, and how it went sour. Looking back though, it’s hard to imagine any manager stopping that side being relegated back in 2013-14, given that they were already in the drop zone when he took over. The job was a poisoned chalice to start with, and it should have little bearing on his chances of becoming the next permanent Old Trafford boss.

A year after he left Cardiff, Solskjær returned to Molde, and guided them to some very impressive results in the Europa League. He beat Fenerbahçe and Celtic to top a group which also included Ajax. Despite going out to holders and eventual winners Sevilla, Molde did win the second leg of their knockout tie.

Right Job at the Right Time

In spite of all the above, nobody should be under any illusions just yet that Ole Gunnar Solskjær is the saviour United fans have been looking for. The first five fixtures of his reign were against teams that the Red Devils should be expecting to win against. Having said that, had Mourinho still been in charge, it’s unlikely they would have won all of them and if they had, they certainly wouldn’t have scored sixteen goals in the process. Tottenham away this Sunday will be his biggest test yet.

There is a story that might be relevant to Solskjær’s situation and could end up in a similar situation. In 2001-02, Holland legend Frank Rijkaard was the manager of Sparta Rotterdam, and they were relegated at the end of that season. A year later, he became the manager of Barcelona and led them to two La Liga titles and the 2006 Champions League trophy.

The point of that story is that back then, Rijkaard offered little to suggest he should be given the job of managing one of the biggest clubs in the world. He hadn’t even played for Barcelona at any time in his career, so he had less credit in the bank with the fans than Solskjær has. Yet he was given a shot at bringing success back to the Nou Camp and look how that worked out.

The fact that Rijkaard has done little in management since then seems to show that, sometimes, the right man can take over the right club at exactly the right time. This could end up being true with Ole Gunnar Solskjær. Just because he has never previously managed a club of United’s stature before doesn’t mean he isn’t equipped to handle it.

Head to Head Audition?

Another irony is that Solskjær’s first real test since taking over is against the man who would seen to be his biggest rival for the position. This Sunday will see the Norwegian go head to head with the man who the media believe to be Woodward’s first choice for the job, Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino.

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The United CEO is known to be a firm admirer of the job the Argentine has done in North London on a fraction of the budget he’d get at Old Trafford. Add the fact that he plays entertaining, attack-minded football to his belief in the value of bringing young players through, and he ticks all of the boxes for a United manager. He is also used to working under a director of football, another which United are currently recruiting for.

There is a question of whether Pochettino would want to leave a job where he is seemingly untouchable at the moment. While he is under pressure to win trophies and sustain some type of title challenge, it’s nowhere near the level of expectation he would feel at United. The board expect trophies, with Champions League qualification the minimum expectation; as Moyes and van Gaal found out to their cost.

Pochettino has already made Spurs the best team in London, for the time being anyway, but if he moved to Old Trafford he would have a much bigger challenge. The reality is that, despite having done a fantastic job at Tottenham, the only silverware he has lifted as boss of any club is a few Manager of the Month awards. The man he faces on Sunday has actually won more, albeit in Norwegian football.

Unlike Pochettino, Ole Gunnar Solskjær knows Manchester United from the ground up. He knows the expectations of both the board and the fans, he already has the players onside and in his short time in charge has got the team playing the best football since Sir Alex Ferguson. Who can say that the Tottenham manager would definitely be a better option?

Final Thought

Time will tell if Solskjær can sustain the impressive start he has made, especially against the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City. If he does, however, and United achieve something this season such as a trophy and a top four finish, removing the Norwegian to bring in Pochettino, Woodward might just be on the receiving end of another banner flying over the stadium.

What happens over the next four to five months will be one of the most crucial decisions Ed Woodward ever makes. After three disastrous appointments, he has to get this one right. Failure to do so might see him reduced back into a role where he does nothing more than make money for the club.

Solskjær is the only Manchester United manager to win his first five games in charge. He has a genuine chance to stake a real claim for the job between now and the end of the season, to impress his potential employer first hand. Time will tell if he takes that opportunity, but he’s done a fine job so far. Of course, there are several sterner tests ahead than he has faced so far, particularly over the next six weeks, and how he handles them may be the deciding factor.

It has to be said, however, that he definitely looks up to the challenge.

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