It’s been nearly three years since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over as Manchester United manager, picking up from Jose Mourinho in late December 2018 as a caretaker before being appointed permanently in March of 2019. There have been remarkable runs of form — like winning 14 of his first 19 matches in charge — and some even more stunning failures, namely three semifinal exits in 2019-20 (Carabao Cup, FA Cup, Europa League), as well as their Champions League group stage exit and a humbling defeat on penalties in the Europa League final last season.
As divisive as the Mourinho era was, it did bring trophies back to United, something Solskjaer’s yet to accomplish. Their Premier League drought has continued — last win: 2012-13 — and they’ve not claimed a title of any kind since the Europa League in 2016-17.
Solskjaer has since rebuilt this squad and been given the star players he’s demanded — this summer alone saw Cristiano Ronaldo return to the club he left in 2009, along with Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane — but the same frustrations remain. Can this squad of talented individuals be fused into a successful collective, and is Solskjaer the right man to do it?
With a run of critical games ahead for United — two dates with Atalanta in the Champions League, plus league fixtures against Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City in the next three weeks alone — we look at Solskjaer the coach, Solskjaer the motivator and Solskjaer the tactician. Can he return this club to its proud peak?
What defines Solskjaer as a manager?
In early 2020, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer gave a television interview in which he was asked for three words to sum himself up as Manchester United manager. In reply, he gave 171, meandering towards a conclusion that left the viewer none the wiser as to the characteristics that define him.
Solskjaer spoke about how “I don’t have to have the final say on everything,” how he is a “club man” and was “open and honest with the players.” Beyond that, there was very little that got to the nub of what makes Solskjaer tick as a football manager, but when canvassing the opinion and insight of those within the game who have worked with or against the Norwegian, the response is similar.
The general consensus is that Solskjaer can perhaps best be described as being “vanilla” — safe, unadventurous, reliable, uninspiring, predictable. It’s in direct contrast to his predecessor at United, Jose Mourinho, and his unassuming personality proved crucial in steadying the ship and easing tensions within the squad during his early months at Old Trafford. But almost three years on, does Solskjaer’s steady and inoffensive persona risk becoming something that holds his team back?
“Ole is well-liked and popular with the vast majority of his squad,” a source told ESPN. “He is also good with staff around the club, but the squad has moved on from when he arrived and the players need, and want, to be challenged more now.
“He’s a good guy, but he’s not a [Jurgen] Klopp or a [Pep] Guardiola and you are reaching a point now where the top players will demand the kind of leadership and decisiveness that they bring to Liverpool and Manchester City.”
But who is Solskjaer as a manager? In the past, he has referenced former managers and coaches like Steve McClaren, Carlos Queiroz and Norwegians Egil Olsen and Aage Hareide as key influences, but Sir Alex Ferguson remains the central figure in Solskjaer’s football development. He still refers to his former United manager as the “gaffer” and appears deferential to Ferguson, yet his managerial traits do not reflect those of his mentor, whose certainty of tactics and selection defined his 27-year reign as manager at Old Trafford.
Solskjaer did make the big call of allowing Romelu Lukaku to leave United in 2019 in order to create space for Mason Greenwood to develop in the first team, but since then, he has avoided firm decisions on his goalkeeper, regularly rotating David de Gea and Dean Henderson last season, and left question marks hanging over the futures of Donny van de Beek, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial without offering any kind of public clarification as to why.
His relationship with Paul Pogba, which stems back to Solskjaer’s time in charge of United’s reserve team under Ferguson, is a good one, according to sources. Solskjaer is also on good terms with Cristiano Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes, with his lack of ego cited by sources as a central factor in the harmonious nature of the dressing room. But Ronaldo’s return to the club is also seen by some as a significant test of Solskjaer as a tactician and as a manager. As reported by ESPN, Ronaldo has pinpointed the need for the ball to be played forward more quickly; how Solskjaer engineers that will be an interesting sub-plot.
If he can tweak United’s way of playing to enable that to happen, he will impress his star player and increase his team’s goal output. But if Solskjaer can’t find a way, or chooses not to, he has to impose his authority by insisting that his way is best. It remains to be seen if he has it within him to be the dominant, decisive character that every winning team needs in charge. — Mark Ogden
Solskjaer the tactician: How does he try to play the game?
It’s not hard to understand the overall basics of Solskjaer’s system, one with a “pace, power and quick attacks” identity as he has himself described it. He’s going to field his players in a pretty balanced 4-2-3-1 formation most of the time, with a double-pivot providing safety in the middle — where the focus is on maintaining a numerical advantage — and forwards both interchangeable and rather narrowly positioned.
The narrow positioning can work out really well, eschewing low-percentage crosses and putting lots of capable finishers closer to the goal — and, in many cases, in good position to draw penalties. Against a team that plays with lots of width, depth and possession — Leeds United, for instance, or even Manchester City on occasion — they can wreak havoc with quick advances up the middle. But this can also sometimes backfire, with wide players often outnumbered or isolated from the rest of the attack; against teams with pragmatic tactics and a strong midfields, Man United can struggle. Leicester City, for instance, has won three straight against them.
Statistically, what stands out most about Solskjaer’s United is caution
Among the EPL’s top five finishers in each of his two full seasons (2019-20 and 2020-21), United ranked fourth in shots attempted per possession in both seasons while allowing the most shots. Opponents both started and finished the highest percentage of possessions in the attacking third.
Put another way, United has been willing to give up ground in the name of defensive solidity. They ranked first of the top five in xG allowed per shot in 2019-20 and second in 2020-21, and in both years, opponents attempted the highest percentage of shots with at least two players behind the ball and the goal. (Then again, so did United.)
It’s not hard to draw a line to Solskjaer’s approach from that of Ferguson. Operating primarily from the formation of the day (then a 4-4-2), they maintained numbers behind the ball while overwhelming opponents with a combination of extreme effort, one of the best collections of midfield talent in the world and strong combination play from their two-forward approach.
Craig Burley previews Manchester United’s Champions League clash vs. Atalanta.
United generated plenty of late-game magic, too, which has continued in the Solskjaer era: when United is behind and has no choice but to press forward, they can soar. Again among top-five finishers, they ranked first in goal differential when behind in both 2019-20 and 2020-21. They are more likely than other top teams to fall behind, in part due to caution and often stolid tactics, but they are also far more likely to catch back up.
Of course, better opponents — like the ones you find in European competitions — are far less likely to allow comebacks.
In all competitions against clubs generally considered among the richest and best in the world — Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool, plus the other most powerful clubs from Europe’s Big Five leagues — United has fallen behind 11 times since Solskjaer took the job. They’ve salvaged a total of three points from these matches.
This has obviously contributed mightily to their struggles in European competitions. In last year’s Champions League group stage, they scored first in three matches and went on to win all three, but they fell behind in the other three and lost them all. Relegated to the Europa League, they scored first in four knockout rounds to advance to the final, but fell behind early to Villarreal and managed only one goal and two shots on target in 120 minutes before falling in penalties.
Has anything changed this season with the addition of Cristiano Ronaldo and Jadon Sancho to an already expensive attack? It’s clearly too early to say, though Sancho has struggled early — stemming at least in part from the fact that he’s a naturally wide player attempting to establish himself in narrower confines — and Solskjaer’s natural caution backfired in a Champions League loss to Young Boys.
They have yet to play any of Liverpool, Chelsea or Manchester City in Premier League play, but they still find themselves in sixth place — five points back of first — through eight matches. Ronaldo’s presence might be responsible for the fact that they’re taking a higher frequency of shots than normal, but as is the case for clubs employing Ronaldo, their pressing options have been limited, which could be a reason for why they’re also allowing more shots. They’ve pulled only one point from their last three Premier League matches.
That shift aside, a lot of the issues that have plagued Solskjaer’s tenure at times have reared their ugly head again this fall. A win over Liverpool on Sunday, of course, could change the mood in a hurry. — Bill Connelly
How does Solskjaer handle the squad?
Ask Ole Gunnar Solskjaer whether he believes he’s a good enough manager to be in charge of one of the biggest clubs in the world, and he will likely tell you that he doesn’t know. He will insist, though, that he knows what it requires to be manager of Manchester United and in his mind, they are two separate things.
Solskjaer is well aware that a managerial record that includes a reserve team position, a relegation with Cardiff City and two spells with Molde in Norway would not usually be enough to get the top job at Old Trafford. Instead, he’s based his time at United on being “the right fit” in a way that David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho proved they were not. Solskjaer will accept that things haven’t always gone to plan, but he would be adamant that he has always tried to conduct himself — and his team — in the right way.
It started on the day he was announced as Mourinho’s successor, ending a whirlwind 24 hours with a visit to the club’s Christmas party. He gave a short speech and even got on the dance floor; the dark clouds that had gathered towards the end of Mourinho’s reign were instantly lifted. He’s made a point of joining his squad during mealtimes, either in the canteen at Carrington or in the team hotels, rather than sitting at the designated coaches’ table, and he’s often seen before training sessions casually chatting with the first players first out of the dressing room. He also holds doors for staff walking the corridors at Carrington, and visitors to his office often find him making the tea or coffee.
Solskjaer sees his role as that of a manager rather than a coach. Much of the planning and execution of training sessions is delegated to assistants and although some senior players — past and present — have had concerns, Solskjaer has consistently backed the team around him.
Shaka Hislop wonders what it would take for Manchester United to sack Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Meanwhile, gaps in backroom staff have also been plugged with outside expertise. Dismayed at conceding too many goals from corners and free-kicks last season, Solskjaer appointed set-piece coach Eric Ramsey over the summer. Martyn Pert, who did his Pro Licence course with Solskjaer in 2010, was brought in (among other reasons) because of his ability to speak multiple languages. He can pass on instructions to Fred in Portuguese and to Edinson Cavani in Spanish, which avoids important details being lost in translation.
Solskjaer has also tried to reduce the reliance on player liaison officers, believing that players should be able to think for themselves both on and off the pitch. Since his arrival, their offices have been moved to a different part of the training ground. Players are invited to play a role in how they are managed, including the positions they like or how best to come back from injuries.
When Solskjaer talks to prospective new signings, his focus is on identifying their motivation behind wanting to move. In 2019, he vetoed a move for Paulo Dybala because he wasn’t convinced by the Argentinian, even though it left him a striker short for the following season.
The message before training sessions is that they should be more intense than matches at the weekend. Strong tackles are encouraged rather than frowned upon, and the players’ competitive spirit is charged with head tennis tournaments and games of six versus six.
Solskjaer has set himself up to be approachable if any of his players have a problem, but he is still the boss. He does not tolerate lateness and incidents are heavily fined. Players know that if he ventures out of his seat on the bench and onto the touchline during games, someone is usually in trouble.
There is a tough streak he’s not always given credit for, and it’s one of the reasons he’s not fond of the nickname from his playing days, “The baby-faced assassin.” — Rob Dawson
The issues Solskjaer must fix
This is the best squad Solskjaer has had during his time in charge at Old Trafford, but it’s still very unbalanced. He has enough attacking players to fill two teams, but few who want to do the dirty work, especially in midfield. Nemanja Matic is the only out-and-out defensive midfielder in the group, but at 33 years old, he lacks the legs to get across the pitch as well as he used to. Scott McTominay and Fred have often been paired together, but that means Solskjaer has to leave out an attacking player and United’s creativity is stifled. It’s a balancing act between defence and attack that Solskjaer has not yet mastered.
Midfield was identified as a position to strengthen before this summer’s transfer window, but Solskjaer and the recruitment department both agreed the club should prioritise a winger and a centre-back. It is likely to be looked at again next summer.
Two of the players who did arrive in the summer — Sancho and Ronaldo — are also taking time to gel. Ronaldo has been criticised for a lack of pressing, something Solskjaer has been keen to introduce, but United knew exactly what they were getting when he was signed. He was the least effective presser of any striker in Serie A last season and United aren’t overly concerned about his running stats because he is in the team to score goals.
Sancho is a different matter. Sources have told ESPN that his slow start at United has been because of an injury that hampered his time at the Euros with England. Solskjaer has also been keen to keep picking Greenwood on the right because of his fine form at the start of the season, meaning Sancho has often been shifted to the left. It is still, in Solskjaer’s eyes, a work in progress. — Dawson
Is Solskjaer the man to make this team a success?
Solskjaer has taken United as far as his coaching abilities will enable him to do so. He has brought calm and stability back to the club since replacing Jose Mourinho and overseen a squad rebuild that now puts the team in with a chance of success. But United are now in a similar situation that Chelsea found themselves under Frank Lampard last year. They have a club legend in charge, one who has done a difficult job with dignity, but the time has come for a world-class coach to take the team to the next level.
Chelsea were ruthless and decisive in replacing Lampard with Thomas Tuchel and it paid off spectacularly. Whether the United hierarchy have the vision and appetite to make a similar change remains to be seen. — Ogden
Given an infinite amount of time, sure. After all, Ferguson didn’t win his first domestic tournament until his fourth season and didn’t win his first league title until his seventh. But Solskjaer won’t get an infinite amount of time, and we haven’t seen any indication that either the club will give him the pieces that he actually needs (read: more world-class midfielders) or that he will adjust enough to fit the side he has. So no. — Connelly
Solskjaer has overseen enough progress to ensure he gets a crack at proving he can take United to the next level. That may be beyond him, but barring a catastrophic collapse, he deserves the chance to prove he’s up to it.
United have tried short-term fixes before and it didn’t work; the club will not be in a hurry to rip up the plan and start again because of a bumpy run. Things would possibly be different if there was an obvious, available candidate who was the right fit for what United have started under Solskjaer, but there isn’t. — Dawson