On Thursday morning Manchester United made it official – interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær has been given the job on a permanent basis, the Norwegian signing a three-year contract at Old Trafford.
The club’s social media accounts announced: “Ole’s at the wheel!” in a nod to the terrace song which has become the soundtrack to the second half of United’s season.
Borrowed from the Stone Roses classic Waterfall, the song asks “how good does it feel?” to have Solskjær in charge – and so far for United, the answer is it feels pretty good.
After taking over from Jose Mourinho on a temporary basis last December Solskjær has revitalised United and already turned a car crash of a season into one to remember.
The club have won 14 out of 19 games since his appointment, which came in the wake of a miserable defeat away to Liverpool on December 17th.
His first match in charge saw United beat Cardiff City 5-1 away and since then they haven’t looked back, surging into the battle for a place in the top four and also – improbably – reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
Solskjær’s United will face Barcelona in the last eight after they overcame a 2-0 first-leg deficit, a rake of injuries and Paul Pogba’s suspension to beat Paris Saint-Germain 3-1 away from home in the last 16.
It was the first time in the history of the competition a side had progressed having lost at home by two goals in the first leg, and represents the most remarkable and memorable result of the post-Alex Ferguson years.
Since that famous night in Paris, United have lost twice – first to Arsenal in the league, before being comprehensively outplayed by Wolverhampton Wanderers in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.
That 2-1 defeat at Molineux saw United’s best chance of silverware this season disappear – but it wasn’t enough to damage Solskjær’s hopes of getting the job long term.
And while he passed his audition with flying colours, the real work begins now for the Norwegian and his backroom staff of Mike Phelan, Michael Carrick, Kieran McKenna, Mark Dempsey and Emilio Alvarez.
One of the main criticisms of Mourinho’s tenure was that the Portuguese was failing to maximise the potential of his squad – something Solskjær has done with aplomb since his arrival.
He has built his side around Pogba, deployed Marcus Rashford as his star centre forward and coaxed surprisingly impressive performances out of Victor Lindelof and Chris Smalling.
There have been different tactical approaches, for example, using a diamond away to Chelsea in the FA Cup, constant tweaks during matches and proactive substitutions – although Alexis Sánchez’s only telling contribution remains the namecheck he gets in the aforementioned song.
But despite this United remain a long way from challenging for the Premier League title, and Solskjær needs to be backed properly in the transfer market this summer.
This week, former manager Louis van Gaal gave an interview in which he described United as “a commercial club, not a football club,” citing the lack of a technical director as a major issue.
There has been a clear lack of direction and a coherent strategy under chief executive Ed Woodward, a physics graduate who helped the Glazer family secure their leveraged buyout of United in 2005.
Woodward has appeared more concerned with securing commercial partners rather than planning for long-term success on the pitch – the appointment of Solskjær hints at a change of approach going forward.
A cynic could suggest the appointment of Solskjær not only appeases supporters – who have been clamouring for him to get the full-time job for months – but also represent the cheaper option, compared with trying to prize Mauricio Pochettino away from Tottenham.
But despite this, appointing Solskjær now also represents a show of faith. With a shallow squad and a difficult fixture list, there remains a real chance United’s season could unravel again between now and May.
Indeed, it would have been more difficult to give Solskjær the full-time job if that defeat to Wolves is followed by a humbling against Barcelona and failure to finish inside the top four.
So now he has to be backed properly. United require a centre half, a right full back, a central midfielder and a right-sided attacker if they are to be challengers again.
They also need to get players off the books – the likes of Matteo Darmian, Marcos Rojo and Antonio Valencia – who have been retained for far too long on extortionate contracts.
Regardless of what happens going forward, Solskjær will always have Paris. The work done now will decide if that night at the Parc des Princes was the peak, or the catalyst for something greater.
The real job starts now. Full steam ahead Barcelona.