United’s stuttering start to the season continued with a 1-1 draw at St Mary’s yesterday and already it would appear that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is under pressure. The Red Devils’ record under the Norwegian since their 3-1 victory over PSG makes for less pleasant reading than a Katie Price autobiography.
Statistics show it’s only three wins in sixteen games since That Night In Paris. Meanwhile, the same people who demanded that Woodward give Solskjaer the full-time job are now questioning whether the board were too hasty in appointing the Norwegian on a permanent basis.
After an impressive pre-season and the opening day destruction of Chelsea, there was a sense of cautious optimism around Old Trafford. However, there have been so many misconstrued resurgences over the past six years that United fans are treating any such talk with such trepidation, it’s almost like a goal under VAR review.
And so, four games into the season, with one win, United are already seven points behind leaders Liverpool. Knives have been drawn. Wolves are circling the likable Norwegian. But perhaps the less fickle United fans are willing to afford their former striker more patience than any of his intolerable predecessors.
This stay of execution should not be born solely out of nostalgia either. Even if the early results have been erratic, Solskjaer has overseen the most important overhaul of any Manchester United squad since Sir Alex Ferguson inherited an Alcoholics Anonymous group in 1986.
When Solskjaer took charge of United on an interim basis last December the club was a bigger mess than Sylvester Stallone’s face. From ‘The Chosen One’ to ‘The Special One’, a succession of failed managers, who’d spent an eye-watering £750M between them, had left behind a squad of substandard, overpaid players to work with.
The mood at Old Traffic was toxic. Half of the players wanted to leave, and the other half were just grateful to be there, given their ability. Solskjaer’s infectious positivity immediately galvanised the players and they embarked upon a run of 14 wins in the Norwegian’s first 17 games.
Then came perhaps the second most infamous night in Paris since Rick Salomon’s home movie got leaked onto the internet.
Against all odds, United had just overturned a 2-0 first leg deficit in Le Parc des Princes to progress to the Champions League quarter finals. At the full-time whistle, everyone affiliated with Man United lost their shit.
Eric Cantona and Alex Ferguson were getting pissed in the changing room. Mick Phelan was taking more selfies than a hen do in a nightclub toilet and for a split second, we all thought Gary Neville’s voice had finally broken while singing Solskjaer’s praises.
‘United are back, baby’, gushed Rio.
Or so he thought. Solskjaer’s exploits with United during the 2018/19 season could be compared with the 1990 Academy Award nominated movie ‘Awakenings’, which tells the story of Dr Malcolm Sayer who administers a revolutionary drug to a group of catatonic patients who briefly awaken before returning to their state of catatonia.
Of course, none of this should’ve been surprising. This was essentially the same motley crew who’d so badly let down Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho before him. During one particularly awful 4-0 defeat away at Everton, United were reduced to being ironically cheered by their own supporters for stringing three passes together. Post-match, the usually affable Scandinavian was stern-faced and clearly embarrassed by what he’d just witnessed on the pitch.
‘I am going to be successful here and there are players who won’t be part of that successful team’, he snarled.
As promised, Solskjaer wielded his axe.
First out the door was the much maligned Marouane Fellaini. The distinctive Belgian became the poster boy of the post-Fergie era shit-show. Slow, predictable, average. The midfielder joined Chinese outfit Shandong Luneng on a ridiculous wage.
Over the summer the former Norway striker showed the Old Trafford exit door to the ageing Antonio Valencia, the money-driven Ander Herrera, the sulking Romelu Lukaku, as well as the substandard duo of Chris Smalling and Matteo Darmian.
But without doubt the most significant departure was that of Alexis Sanchez. I’m sure the likes of Kleberson and Djemba-Djemba thank their lucky stars that United signed the Chilean striker. Because he is, without any doubt, the worst signing in the club’s history and epitomises everything that’s been wrong with United’s transfer policy under the stewardship of Ed Woodward.
From the moment he signed on a pay packet of £391,000-per-week, rising to more than £500,000 with associated bonuses, it caused divisions in an already fractured dressing room. David De Gea and Ander Herrera’s contract negotiations were impacted by Sanchez’s salary which blew the club’s existing wage structure to smithereens.
In the end, Herrera opted to join PSG and to be fair to the little Spaniard you could see his point. While Sanchez was at home nursing his latest niggle and posting pics of his Labradors on Instagram, Herrera was covering every blade of grass for the badge and being paid £300,000-a-week less.
Offloading Sanchez to Inter, even if only on loan, ridded the changing room of the latest in a long line of mercenaries who joined the club for no reason other than money.
Of course, the same sort of accusation could be levelled at the club, whose transfer policy has focused on the commercial benefits off the pitch rather than those on it. However, with Solskjaer at the helm, that strategy appears to have ended.
United were expected to make a move for long-term transfer target, Gareth Bale, after Real boss Zinedine Zidane revealed he’d be sold this summer. But the 46-year-old Norwegian opted to sign another Welshman, 21-year-old Daniel James instead.
Solskajer is aiming to build a more stable long-term future for the club by signing younger, hungrier players such as James, Wan-Bissaka and Maguire. And it’s been those three players who have been United’s standout players of the season so far.
His preference of the energetic Scott McTominay over the static Nemanja Matic and his willingness to allow Chris Smalling to leave in order to give Axel Tuanzebe his chance, is further evidence of the Norwegian’s long-term vision.
Another indication of Solskjaer’s vision for the club is the promotion to the first team squad of U23 graduates Mason Greenwood, Angel Gomes, James Garner and Tahith Chong. In fact, when United lined up for their opening day 4-0 thrashing of Chelsea, the average age of their starting XI was 24 – with Jesse Lingard their oldest outfield player at 26!
As United signed off the 2018/19 season with a harrowing defeat at home to relegated Cardiff, the scenes at the final whistle in Paris seemed like a distant memory and the enormity of the Manchester United job fully hit Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Since then the fan favourite has set about reshaping his squad to resemble the precocious young Manchester United side he joined as baby-faced 23-year-old back in 1996.
‘You can’t change your whole squad. One step at a time’, he said after that 4-0 drubbing at Goodison Park.
Solskjaer never gave up fighting for the club and for the fans during his playing days, scoring many memorable injury time goals. It remains to be seen whether the club and the fans will respond in kind.