Manchester United kick off their third full season under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer tomorrow, and as the manager now settles into the fact he is the longest serving manager since Sir Alex Ferguson, we take a look at what needs to be accomplished this season in order for him to deem it a successful campaign.
The Job So Far
Of course, what has already gone will contribute towards how that success is defined.
And for many people they will consider that Solskjaer has failed, because they expect that two and a half years is a long enough time to deliver a Premier League title, or at least a trophy of some description, and it’s not a completely unreasonable expectation, at least on the latter score.
Some things in football have changed but one thing remains fairly true – it takes time to establish and develop a proper culture at a club. Jurgen Klopp is the best modern example. He took over a big club that could spend money but not like Manchester City or Chelsea and for a period of time his Liverpool team was the best in the country, and arguably Europe.
The success came about through patience – persevering when his win record percentage was lower than Brendan Rodgers, keeping at it even when celebrating a homedraw with West Brom, until Klopp had created a high intensity team that was loyal to the club’s philosophy. It took Klopp 3 years to deliver a properly strong team and you could argue his inheritance was slightly more generous than Solskjaer’s.
So it takes time, and Solskjaer can’t complain that he hasn’t had it.
Whether or not he’s been adequately backed by the board is another matter, but he insists he has, and there are plenty of supporters who feel he has.
It’s difficult to reasonably criticise a manager for losing a penalty shoot-out in a Cup Final but not to say it shouldn’t have got to that point.
Unai Emery is a good enough coach at that level to challenge the best teams in Europe, if not lead them, as we saw against Chelsea in the week, but it was still a mark against Solskjaer that he couldn’t win the Europa League Final, and it doesn’t really serve as stronger evidence of a job well done on top of the semi-final defeats previously.
Navigating the semi-finals, however, does still constitute some progress, if only literal. Those inclined to believe Solskjaer has done a good job would be wise not to point to that as evidence.
There has been a mess waiting for someone to unravel ever since the summers of 2014 and 2015. So much experience was lost and so much of a tactical shift was introduced that the entire ethos of the club stagnated.
Louis van Gaal introduced a game where risk was outlawed and players had to take multiple touches. The 5-3 Leicester game early in his reign shaped his pragmatic approach for the rest of his tenure – the weak defence must be protected, and although it was one of the biggest areas of concern, only Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof were really brought in after Marcos Rojo. Two of those are erratic at best, whilst the third has never seemed to have the physicality one feels a defender at the level United aspire to be requires.
Even when Jose Mourinho at times tried to play with a little more freedom (don’t laugh in the back), he was bound to be more conservative to protect the backline, and that led to the acquisition of a number of midfielders who had more singular abilities than well-rounded games.
Few of those abilities were complementary between the midfielders United had on their books at the time of Mourinho’s departure.
Barely any areas of the squad seemed to have been built with another area of it in mind; for this, you could level as much blame at the owners as the manager, with one poor signing for example being Romelu Lukaku. A talented striker, but Ed Woodward then reneged on the deal to sign Ivan Perisic, and so the service for Lukaku from wide was just not going to come. Square pegs in round holes everywhere.
Consequently, United supporters had experienced arguably the worst four years of football in its entire history. The poor squad management had left it bloated with a number of extremely well-paid players who were not going to contribute to a positive future for the club. Some of those were easier to offload than others, but not before causing residual damage.
The Alexis Sanchez transfer instigated huge problems for the club. His salary was eye-watering but meant that David De Gea was entitled to demand a salary of circa £350,000 because of his world-class form, or he could walk out. United, at that time, could not afford to take the risk of losing one of their better players for nothing.
The Manchester United Ole Gunnar Solskjaer walked into had finished second in the previous season, but a distant second. When Jose Mourinho was dismissed, United were sixth, and well worth that place in the table, lacking in any sort of direction and bereft of positivity. The mood at the club was worse than when it was relegated in 1974.
What a tangled web to unweave.
Where would one start? Solskjaer started with positivity and tried to get to know the players. It had an instant impact.
He showed fine tactical nous to oversee wins at Spurs, Arsenal, Chelsea and in Paris in his first few months, and some exciting football, before the reality set in and some insipid end-of-season results and performances showed the true extent of the mess he had on his hands.
In the summer of 2019 a number of players were allowed to leave, some permanently and others on temporary moves that would become permanent. Lukaku, Sanchez, Smalling, Darmian. Long-term servants Valencia and Young were permitted to leave. Herrera, after demanding an unrealistic salary following the Sanchez episode, went to a place where he could get it. Marcos Rojo went.
De Gea, and arguably Pogba, remain as the two big earners which are potential problems caused by the Sanchez debacle, but it seems as though these are being carefully managed.
The squad became less bloated. It was a successful and brave move to cull some of the big names. It was also necessary and overdue.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire came in to improve the defence and Dan James came in as a squad player. Bruno Fernandes was signed. For the first time in a number of years, United now had an eleven you could more or less name, and if not, they at least had a defence you could regularly pick. It didn’t make it the best defence, but, from the selection at his disposal, Solskjaer ultimately picked the most consistent.
I was not overly convinced by last summer’s window. However, it was apparent that it was a case of the pandemic dictating much of it with every club. United rolled with the punches and survived a traumatic period to finish the season in an arguably healthy position.
It was not an overnight procedure. Some players remain at the club, and in the case of a player such as Phil Jones, some might fairly question why the manager sanctioned a new contract when the best thing for all parties would have probably been to move on. But Solskjaer knows these players as human beings and we don’t – and we have seen the benefit of that approach in the form of a player like Luke Shaw. Might we yet see a return to form for Jesse Lingard? Anthony Martial again, who seemed initially to take to Solskjaer’s faith?
From those early impressive tactical outings, Solskjaer has ironically become less convincing on this front as he has come to trust the players more. His most effective tactical plan is counter attacking in big games with the midfield axis of Fred and Scott McTominay, but the pair is limited when it comes to setting the pace and controlling the tempo of the games which must be United’s aim if they are to seriously challenge.
Solskjaer has seemed uncomfortable shifting from his 4-2-3-1 as he trusted in its consistency, even accounting for its flaws, instead of shifting to a gamble – and let’s be fair, gambles with most of these players have not always come with good results.
Still, two and a half years in, the manager has to take the responsibility for the composition of his team and squad, and if some of the issues were still inherited ones, then he is responsible in that he attended to other areas before that one.
The biggest concern for fans going into the season (assuming Varane finally gets over the line) is the lack of a proper midfielder to control the pace in the middle of the park, call it a defensive midfielder if you like, whilst you still have Gary Neville insisting United should go out and get Harry Kane. That seems unrealistic, but he has a point that a natural goalscorer seems to be missing from the squad away from Edinson Cavani.
Assembled with the limitations imposed by the ownership (and by that, I mean the ability to make sweeping changes en masse alá City), Solskjaer now has a squad and team that looks healthy and has a blend, save for one or two areas. With the pre-season additions he can’t genuinely complain that this isn’t his team nor that it isn’t one that he expects to challenge. So, what should he be challenging for?
There have to be a number of improvements. You can’t completely eradicate silly results, that’s part of the fun of football, but you can reduce the frequency of them, and United need to control and see out more games at home which were once seen as routine.
They also need to be more flexible and proactive in big games. Supporters (most of them…) won’t mind if they are not, so long as they get the results, but generally speaking it would be an encouraging sign if they are equipped to do so.
You can’t predict finals, or penalty shoot-outs, so a final appearance must be judged on its merits, but you get the feeling that United need to win something. Another penalty shoot-out defeat would reflect badly. A valiant loss in the form of the 1979 FA Cup Final would not enhance Solskjaer’s reputation. For some, you suspect a League Cup win or even an FA Cup win would not, so it’s very much a case of assessing how it is at the end of the campaign.
The League is a more consistent yardstick. It doesn’t matter that City have signed Grealish and that they might get Kane. They can only accumulate a maximum of 114 points and the the likelihood is that they will get 90 or over.
United’s task is not really to match City on the field, it’s to do what Liverpool learned to do a couple of years ago, to do what United did to Chelsea in 2007, and that’s to accumulate as many points in the other games as possible. They finished with 74 points last season and that’s simply not good enough for a challenge.
A brief look through last season’s results and you could quickly tally fifteen points that shouldn’t have been thrown away by a United team who have serious ambitions of challenging. There are three teams United can accept are as good or better than them at this moment in time. City, Liverpool and Chelsea. Leicester have a better blend but not better individuals.
So if you accept eighteen points might be difficult to get, and accept a couple of dodgy results, United still have a target of 90 they have to go for. That’s not my expectation – that’s the unforgiving standard of a league title challenge.
It’s the standard City will expect to surpass, especially as they continue their tried-and-tested method of weakening other squads in the league, making it a weak but top-heavy division. Liverpool met that challenge a couple of years ago.
So can United, theoretically. Do Varane and Sancho make up the sixteen points to make 74 into 90? They’ll make some difference, surely.
The rest of it is in the hands of the manager and at the end of this season we’ll probably have a true answer as to whether he is getting the most out of them or not enough. He’s trying behind the scenes. More staff, specialist staff. Let’s see how much of a difference they make.
United’s league-high points tallies are 92 in 1994 (a 42-game season), 91 in 2000 and 90 in 2009. The reality is they could set a new record and City could still win the league with some comfort. But getting to that tally will be a sign that we have pushed them into a real race.
That’s not to say that it will be a failure if Solskjaer cannot match one of the best three tallies, recorded by our best ever manager, from our 140+ year history. All things are relative and should be assessed as such.
It’s fair to say that the fans who have stuck by Solskjaer have used a comprehensive and nuanced explanation to do so, because they understand the bigger picture. But now is the time to deliver.
As it begins to pick itself, Solskjaer does have some key areas he will need to address himself. He will firstly need to be bold when it comes to the goalkeeper choice. No team is likely to win a league, or seriously compete, chopping and changing that crucial position. He understands that, as is proven by his determination to find a consistent back-line. That should pick itself, although his pursuit of Kieran Trippier should be enough to prick the ears of Wan-Bissaka that he needs to add to his impressive defensive game.
The midfield seems like the biggest emergency but the signing of Varane ought to relieve some of the necessity for the extensive protection the defence has received for almost six years.
Whether McTominay or Fred can develop the positional maturity Matic seems to possess in order to permit Solskjaer to liberate Pogba to dominate games in a deep role is another matter; whether that’s one of Pogba’s specific positions where he can turn it on is too. But it’s an area that, with a stronger foundation, has less of an excuse to be hamstrung by its own limitations. In that respect, Solskjaer must be on top of it too.
United are blessed with good attacking options now and supporters shouldn’t grimace if Jesse Lingard is given a chance to prove himself following his successful time at West Ham. Ole, though, needs to find the right combination. The penny seemed to drop when he made Cavani his first choice at the end of last season because he behaves like a proper penalty box striker should do.
United’s play can be slow enough without the quicker players like Martial slowing it down by deliberating; Martial, as everyone saw, can be comfortably marked out of games, and there can be no doubting that he is entering last chance saloon – that is if Inter Milan don’t use some of their Lukaku money to strike a convenient deal for all. If he stays, it’s for Martial to try and fit the system, and not for Ole to find the system to try and fit him.
It’s also for Rashford, upon his return, to show that it was the injury grinding him down and not the extra personal burden people seem to think distracted him. It will be a defining year for everyone’s favourite player.
Cavani can’t be used every week so is this the year Greenwood gets a run through the middle? Much will depend on Solskjaer’s capability as a manager to strike the right blend from what he has. He has taken a gamble on identifying Sancho as the solution to the right side. Hopefully it will be a sure bet. The point is that these players need to step up to the challenge if they are to win the league.
The shifting pieces of the squad, so often the rag-tag bunch of players who were unable to be shipped out or sent on loan, now have to be transformed into viable members of the set-up, able to contribute and make a difference rather than stand in to give a player a rest. This is, perhaps, a more critical area for Ole than many will credit at first glance. It’s the difference, for example, between an Anthony Elanga or a Dan James.
As much as many of the players seem to be on borrowed time, it’s the manager who has given it to them, and it’s his judgement that will be called into question too.
This is the critical and pivotal season for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Progress, to this point, has been a matter of debate. It’s come down to the finer points. There are some who will reference the overall transition of the squad and generally better football. There are others who will point to the trophy wins, in less time, of his two predecessors even with worse football. Both camps have their points.
It’s a straightforward question without a straightforward answer at this moment in time. However, if it’s not an easy question to answer in nine months, then one suspects Manchester United will be entering stage one of their next transitional period.
Will he answer it positively? Well, I’m a Manchester United fan, so I hope so. Isn’t that the point?