What a year that’s been.
Chaos is probably the perfect term but let us refocus our eyes for a moment and consider only the events at Old Trafford over the last twelve months.
Where were we at the start of it? Where are we now? What do we expect going forward, based on what happened in-between?
A 2-0 defeat to Burnley on January 22nd left United six points off fourth place, and fourteen points off third. They were thirty points behind leaders Liverpool.
“The scenes in the stadium weren’t good,” Darren Fletcher told BBC Sport after that game. “The chanting, the atmosphere really turned toxic for the first time.”
Fletcher wasn’t the only one criticising. Rio Ferdinand must have felt some embarrassment at becoming a meme due to his ‘Ole’s at the wheel’ remarks of March 2019. Ten months on and United seemed not to have gone anywhere.
“I can’t defend this. What has been invested?” Ferdinand said on BT Sport. “It’s an embarrassment. People at the top need to look and see this and make changes, put a plan in place that people can sit there and see where we are going now. I don’t see it.”
There had been investment. But it had been insufficient. United were still paying the price for the summers under Louis van Gaal where thousands of games of top level experience was lost. In the space of a year, the full title-winning defence of 2013 was allowed to leave the club.
Solskjaer spent £145m in his first summer, with two players to go straight into the defence with expectations of improving it, and the searingly-fast Dan James as a squad option.
But that told half a story; Antonio Valencia, Ander Herrera and Romelu Lukaku were all allowed to leave, with Alexis Sanchez and Ashley Young following Lukaku to Inter Milan to leave a squad that was already weak in quality and genuine numbers. The argument against Solskjaer is that those players were not good enough for United anyway, and it was time for them to be moved on. But it meant extra pressure on the shoulders of Dan James, who had increased expectation after a good start, but could not replace the goal threat of Sanchez and Lukaku and did not possess the strong delivery of Young.
Solskjaer’s position had already been under threat as early as October 2019. But two victories at Manchester City – the league one being particularly thrilling – earned him some time when it was heavily speculated that Mauricio Pochettino would take his job.
The United boss, though, was knee-deep in the dirty waters of transition, and few gave him the benefit of the doubt when it came to navigating that difficult time. Marcus Rashford stepped up as a senior striker but it took Anthony Martial a little time to embrace the pressure of the limelight he’d coveted for years and sulked as he saw Lukaku and Zlatan Ibrahimovic take that central striker spot.
There were certain moments of stability. Solskjaer was keen to play a settled side but that meant going through the squad to find it. Defensively they looked weak, with only three clean sheets in the league before the turn of the year into 2020. The Burnley defeat was the fourth in six games. It followed a 2-0 defeat at Liverpool, and a loss by the same score a few weeks earlier at Arsenal. The Gunners were now led by Mikel Arteta, the former assistant of Pep Guardiola, and with Arteta having once played at the Emirates, it put a nice spin for how the result would be perceived in the press.
Solskjaer was apparently out of his depth, given the job only because of his association with the club. The second part is undeniable, in as much as it’s obvious that if he hadn’t played for United he wouldn’t have been considered for the job as manager. Then again you could say the same about Kevin Keegan and Newcastle and Kenny Dalglish and Liverpool, not to mention Arteta, not to mention Lampard, or even Steven Gerrard who got one of the top two jobs in Scotland on his reputation as a player.
Then came Bruno Fernandes. According to Dean Ashton on Talksport, without Fernandes, Solskjaer wouldn’t have the job. Well, quite. But he is at United, and he has made a difference bigger than what this writer predicted he would.
Fernandes’ impact was firstly in the way he took personal responsibility and secondly in the way it liberated others. He was aggressive and proactive, upping the tempo of the team and pushing them further up the pitch. He was always present, never shirking. There was no excuse about where in the team he should play to get the best out of him.
With the attention on him, Rashford and Martial could breathe a little easier, and it also provided a more comfortable environment – initially – for Mason Greenwood to come in the first team set-up. The enforced break from the start of the pandemic helped United in terms of getting a settled side by the time football resumed.
There was a clear plan, a 4-2-3-1 shape which yielded the best run of form the club had seen for seven years. The football was sensational. Towards the end of the season, a lack of a plan B – and Solskjaer’s reluctance to stray from a plan A – undermined their chances of cup success. The plan A was enough to get United over the line and qualify for the Champions League in third place, which was what the objective at the start of the season had been and was, after all, the yardstick used by the owners to hire and fire managers.
The squad was not strengthened sufficiently. Where other clubs were able to make shrewd signings, United made statements about their financial situation, and consequently transfer plans, being impacted by the global situation.
Donny Van De Beek arrived for a reasonable fee from Ajax but felt like Fred two years before in that it seemed very much a case to be the player who was last on the desired list being brought in first.
The public chase of Jadon Sancho had no back-up option and the amount of senior defenders at the club was used as a reason for why that area of the squad was neglected when it came to strengthening. Alex Telles and Edinson Cavani were signed in desperate last-minute deals when they could probably have been acquired much earlier.
Defeats to Crystal Palace and Spurs made it seem as though Ole was a dead man walking; the manager used the lack of proper preparation as a reason for the abject, fatigued displays and it felt like an excuse.
Telles has proved to be a very shrewd buy, both in his own form and how it has spurred Luke Shaw to look something like the player United thought they’d signed six years ago. Like Fernandes, it is both pleasing and perplexing to see a player fit for purpose providing such a significant contribution and raising the standard.
It’s enough to make you feel that one central defender could make a big difference to the back line. That one holding midfielder who can do what Matic and Fred do in one player, and still serve as a complement for all the existing players rather than behaving like a square peg in a round hole, could be just as transformative.
United will end the year in second place with people declaring them as part of the title race. There are some caveats to this.
First of all, it’s not the normal stage of the season it would be at the turn of the year. Secondly, it should not be part of United’s expected objective this season, considering their recruitment in the summer which suggested merely holding on to their place in the top four should be enough of an achievement. Thirdly, this is a very poor version of the Premier League which is contributing to how those perspectives are viewed across the board.
But United are so much further forward than where they were a year ago. Back then people were saying it was a mistake to let Lukaku and Sanchez go. Now, Solskjaer can leave Paul Pogba on the bench and it will be accepted by most who understand he is not the right choice for some games.
He is still learning to re-shape that plan A due to the current composition of the squad but the plan B is getting a little better. The manager can make in-game decisions and have it make a positive contribution, to add to the impressive number of away wins in big games he has achieved tactically. He is getting more familiar with the squad as he strengthens his control of it and demands higher standards, and whilst it still feels like a work in progress for him to address the weaker areas of the first team, it seems he is becoming more pro-active when it comes to addressing them and compensating for them.
The jury is still out on him and the squad, particularly as it’s been such a turbulent year. It’s not the right time to be saying Solskjaer is definitely the man to bring glory back to United but it can be said, two years in, that he has brought the best football we have seen since Sir Alex, and even when the quality of the squad has dictated that he must be pragmatic, it has still been attractive and with the objective of winning football matches using speed and flair.
If Old Trafford were allowed supporters in tomorrow, the vast majority would be showing appreciation for the manager’s work. Most want him to continue and it seems like the club will at least allow for that happen – Solskjaer will have had longer than any post-Ferguson manager should he still be here at the end of the season.
Consolidation of the Champions League spot should still be the key ambition for Solskjaer and the primary objective laid out to him by his bosses.
That job would be made much easier by a smart signing in the winter window, though those transfer plans have been undermined somewhat by early elimination from a Champions League group the club had not prepared sufficiently for.
Still, it can be done. Fernandes is an example of that.
He’s also an example of how just one player can make a significant enough impact and that much should be kept in mind. An upgrade at centre-half could make Wan-Bissaka feel more comfortable, and help Maguire in his own role. If United were more imposing and solid in defence it would make it less urgent for the midfield to be so compensatory. It could really elevate this side.
But I’m preaching to the converted with this; and we all know that the board have a habit of failing to back managers when the club feels in a position of strength. Sorry to sound like a broken record for anyone who’s read my work for long enough – but if the events of the last year prove anything, they prove how significant it is for the board to allow the team to be strengthened in the way the manager wants it to be.
Solskjaer has even managed to make a positive out of the summer mess (okay, Donny is still a mystery) and so he should be given whatever he asks for in the transfer window.
People are keen to compare Solskjaer to managers past. Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho are the two most-often quoted.
But at a time when there have been some reports about Tommy Docherty being poorly, it’s perhaps apt to consider that Solskjaer has had to undertake a similar foundation job, overseeing a massive transition which has at times been unpopular.
Docherty was sacked – albeit in very different circumstances of on-field success – in the summer of 1977 and it could be said it took until 1990 or 1991 for the club to feel they were benefitting from the same sort of momentum.
Like Solskjaer, Docherty had his team playing the best football since one of the club’s best ever managers.
Like 1977, there remains some doubt about just how seriously talk of a genuine title challenge should be treated; but that warning should be present in the mind of the powers that be, who have learned the hard way that this sort of position can be thrown away very easily by neglect of duty.
Get it wrong and they run the risk of setting themselves back with an entirely unpredictable future.
Get it right and United might just find themselves in a title race.