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Solskjaer has done the job he was hired for. The next part is very different.
Can he take them forward?
What is the point of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United? It’s pretty clear when we look at the context.
Man Utd completely imploded after Sir Alex Ferguson retired. That much is obvious. The Scot squeezed every last drop of magic out of those players to win back the league title in 2012/13, and in the process left the cupboard bare for the next man. As the data has shown, that last season wasn’t as dominant as one might expect, and Ferguson worked whatever magic he needed to get a season of ruthless finishing to deliver the title.
That all fell apart the moment David Moyes put his foot through the door. The whys and hows are for another newsletter, but we can all agree that season was a disaster for Man Utd. Thus they did the old trick of sacking the manager and hiring the opposite of his most obvious quality to replace him. Out went the conventional British coach with no record of winning trophies or Champions League football; in came Louis van Gaal, revered across the continent for the sides he built at Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern.
That didn’t work, as his strict and outdated possession football ideas totally clashed with the culture of the club and neither side showed any willingness to adapt. That rebuild was aborted and Jose Mourinho turned up to “win now”, which resulted in everyone falling out with each other and setting the club on fire (and, yes, Mourinho stans, he did win the Europa League).
So when Solskjaer came in, his job was to bring a sense of calm and stability to the club. United were on their fourth manager post-Ferguson and each brought very different ideas of playing football. There had to be some sense of progress, some sense that the team was actually evolving in a positive direction beyond simply throwing money at problems with no clear strategy.
He’s achieved that.
Solskjaer has changed the profile of the squad. He’s made it a younger side, with an average age weighted by minutes played of 25.6 (per FBRef, using data from StatsBomb). This is the third youngest in the Premier League and the youngest of any side competing for serious trophies. Star man Bruno Fernandes (26) and captain Harry Maguire (28) are now in their prime years, while most of the rest of the core are still to come into theirs. A few experienced heads like Edinson Cavani (34), Juan Mata (33) and Nemanja Matic (soon to turn 33) can help keep those fresher faces on track.
Solskjaer has now been in charge as long as Mourinho had the job. Even if the Portuguese manager won more trophies, he had seemingly lost all trust with the squad by now. With Solskjaer, you can see how the team could continue to improve in the coming years. They haven’t gone round in circles, and the chances of United winning the title in the next few years are higher than they were at any point since 2013.
The players clearly like him. This side has “fight” in it and can win games on a mix of resilience and individual quality. In the long run, this is all a significant step forward from anything happening under Mourinho, Van Gaal or Moyes. Solskjaer really has improved the side and his legacy should be such.
But it’s not enough.
Solskjaer’s United are extremely predictable in possession. Their collection of talent has a strong preference for working things down the left flank, and they’re largely given the licence to do that. The side don’t really progress the ball in any clearly specified patterns and the Europa League final was a perfect example. When Villarreal kept it pretty tight, United didn’t really know what to do.
The side’s tactical problems have been fairly clear for the duration of Solskjaer’s time. Back in 2019, they didn’t have any way of creating chances while in possession at all, relying almost purely on the counter-attack. They fixed this problem to an extent, but it was simply through signing Fernandes and letting him do his thing. Don’t get me wrong, having good players is by far the most important thing in football. But to win major trophies, which is surely where the club need to get to, they’ll be facing teams with great players and great tactical ideas. Pep Guardiola’s plan in possession is not simply to let Kevin De Bruyne do his thing.
Man Utd’s metrics aren’t great. They were the fourth best team in the Premier League by expected goal difference despite finishing second (again from FBRef/StatsBomb). They finished their chances well, which is probably plenty of variance, but nonetheless feels on-brand for a team just letting quality players do their thing. They’ll probably add more high-quality players over the next few windows, and that should help them improve further. Unlike some managers, Solskjaer shouldn’t have that much trouble just adding extra good players to the starting lineup, since it’s not as though they have a rigid system.
It was not certain to me at all that United would get to this point when Solskjaer arrived. In fact, it was very easy to imagine a world where they continued to drift long enough for the revenues to start dropping, and once that happens, we can’t count on the club to make their way back to the top at some point. Remember that Liverpool were the richest team in the country thirty years ago. It was a period of stagnation on the pitch that allowed Ferguson’s all-conquering Man Utd team to overtake them in terms of revenue.
That should be his legacy: he began the turnaround. If Man Utd target to win the title in a few years’ time, Solskjaer’s work so far will have been integral in stabilising the club, bringing in a different profile of player, and finding harmony in the dressing room. But to push on to the next level will require tactical rigour. It will take automatisms and positional play, complex pressing traps and intricate ways of exploiting the half-spaces. It will take a different kind of coaching.
I’m not saying Solskjaer cannot do this. I’d highly encourage him to follow Ferguson’s example. When top-level European football was growing more complex for his classically British ideas, the Scot hired Carlos Queiroz and instigated a much more modern tactical set-up. If Solskjaer could find a similar figure and reinvigorate his approach that way, there’s every chance he can deliver big trophies back to Old Trafford.
But if this is all he’s going to offer, it might be a case of “job done, thanks for everything”.