When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was appointed as Man Utd caretaker manager following the dismissal of Jose Mourinho back in December, opinion was divided. The United faithful were ecstatic to have a club legend back at Old Trafford, but many neutrals argued that Solskjaer’s sole foray into management in England had been little short of disastrous. The Norwegian had been sacked from Cardiff following the Bluebirds’ relegation from the Premier League back in 2014, lasting just a few games into the Championship campaign before his dismissal. He returned to Molde – a club he had both played for and managed before – and his previous success was duplicated. It seemed fair enough to assume that the 46-year-old had little at risk by taking the job with the Red Devils, with seemingly little to play for after a lacklustre start to the campaign under the Portuguese boss.
However, Solskjaer has once again proven himself red through and through, re-instating a sense of enjoyment among the playing staff. That new approach translated well onto the pitch, with United going on a wonderful run of form which had seen them losing only once – at home against PSG in the Champions League. That deficit was overturned in the reverse fixture in Paris in miraculous fashion, offering memories reminiscent of United’s greatest comeback one night in Barcelona 20 years ago – a comeback in which Solskjaer, ironically, scored the winner to deliver United’s first European title since 1968. Honestly, you will find new casinos almost every day – but none would have predicted the way that particular game finished!
That was until this weekend, when United suffered their first league defeat since losing 3-1 at Liverpool in December. They travelled to Arsenal and came up short, losing 2-0 to an Arsenal side that generally looked much the better team on the day. The thing is, this result could prove something of a blessing in disguise for the club – and particularly for their caretaker manager (though how much longer it will be before he is appointed on a permanent basis remains to be seen). The problem with an unbeaten run is that it ultimately becomes a “thing” – the longer it goes on, the more unbreakable it almost seems to be and as a result the more pressure is felt in maintaining the run. Of course, the longer the better – more points picked up means better league finishes after all – but the focus can often shift to the run itself, rather than the way in which it is being held.
United have enjoyed a few feel-good months, with their manager smiling his way through press duties in a way often associated with the man who was known – as a player – as the babyfaced assassin. Now, it could be said, the real work begins. How United bounce back from this first domestic defeat under Solskjaer’s tutelage will highlight just how tough his United side really are. Odds are he will be appointed manager on a permanent basis in the summer if not beforehand in any case, and that kind of run can not go on forever. Now that monkey is off United’s backs, work can begin in earnest to bounce back and try to bounce just that little bit higher. The race for the top four (or even the top three) looked to be steadily heading in United’s favour, but this setback blows the whole thing wide open once again.
If United can get into the top four by the end of the season Solskjaer will undoubtedly be heralded as the man the club have needed since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson back in 2013, and rightly so. Some managers just seem to fit certain clubs – look at Kevin Keegan at Newcastle, Peter Reid at Sunderland and the late great Howard Kendall at Everton. It is still early days, but Solskjaer seems to fit that bill at United, though it could also be argued that Cardiff is the only blip on his entire managerial career to date.
If United can get back to winning ways quickly, putting their “lowest moment” to bed quickly, then Solskjaer and co. have every chance of seriously threatening Champions League qualification at the end of the season – and if the powers-that-be at Old Trafford do not offer him the job permanently at that stage, they will surely face backlash.