Solskjaer facing toughest test amid disquiet at Old Trafford
Norwegian needs to prove naysayers wrong after shaky start to Man United’s season
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer applauds at the end of their 1-1 draw with Southampton at St Mary’s Stadium on August 31st. Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer asked to be judged on this season and, four matches in, his credibility is being questioned within Manchester United’s squad.
The concerns are not thought to be universally shared, however, and a paradox here is that a group of players who flatlined at the end of last term and are again underperforming have their own need to prove they possess the requisite quality.
United’s start to the campaign has been one win, two draws and a defeat, leaving them seven points behind the leaders, Liverpool. The opening-day 4-0 victory over Chelsea was followed by a concerning slump: the 1-1 draw at Wolverhampton Wanderers, the 2-1 home defeat by Crystal Palace, and the 1-1 draw at Southampton before the international break.
Before Leicester City arrive at Old Trafford on Saturday, there is disquiet that Solskjaer’s coaching may lack sophistication, and he is yet to earn complete respect from those players who are dubious.
Despite being popular on a personal level and having a relaxed man-management style, there are further doubts regarding the 46-year-old’s tactical acumen, with his record at Cardiff City, whom he took down to the Championship in May 2014, being pointed to.
Whereas José Mourinho was not liked by some players or staff, there was a respect for a tactical and strategic prowess that allowed him to guide United to the EFL Cup and Europa League in 2016-17 and second place in the Premier League the following season.
Those sceptical of Solskjaer are still to be convinced, too, that his methods can improve them in the way that those, say, of Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp and Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola have with their respective players.
In one sense the doubts should not surprise. Whereas Mourinho and his predecessor, Louis van Gaal, each won titles in at least two of the big-four leagues of England, Italy, Germany and Spain, and also had European Cup success on the CV, Solskjaer’s sole championship and knockout competition triumphs were achieved in Norway.
As manager of Molde he claimed the Eliteserien in 2011 and 2012 plus the 2013 Norwegian Cup. Now, players – who can be the first to shift responsibility when results are poor – are pointing to how these trophies were claimed in a relatively minor league. There are further questions about his ability to manage a club of United’s huge global profile that attracts incessant scrutiny.
Closer examination of Solskjaer’s tenure at Cardiff suggests it should not be taken as clear-cut evidence of his being out of his depth. When he took over on January 2nd, 2014, Cardiff were fourth-bottom and hardly stable off the field. There had been a stand-off between Vincent Tan, the owner, and Malky MacKay which culminated in the Scot’s sacking as manager, and there was supporter disgruntlement at the Malaysian’s decision to change team colours from blue to red.
Yet Solskjaer – admirably – took full responsibility for overseeing relegation. This occurred after he lost 12 of 18 Premier League games, managing three wins and a total of 12 points from the available 54.
Solskjaer’s two years in charge of United reserves indicate that he is an original thinker
Although Solskjaer was removed eight games into the following season after winning only two of the first six Championship matches, more than one of the Cardiff players relegated under him counter the view held by some at United.
Reporters were told Solskjaer’s training sessions were innovative, that he possessed a clear vision of how the side should play, and that relegation may have been because of an attempt to implement change too quickly. The last view is in line with Solskjaer’s take.
Solskjaer’s two years in charge of United reserves indicate that he is an original thinker. One example offered by a member of the side Solskjaer managed to the 2009-10 Premier Reserve League title is of him asking players to switch positions during sessions to greater understand the other’s role.
The view that Solskjaer may not be able to handle the pressure at United is also counterbalanced, at least to a point, by his Molde tenure. Solskjaer had to deal with an expectation in Norway that, having worked under the peerless Sir Alex Ferguson, he could and would perform a managerial miracle.
Solskjaer’s response was to focus on instilling a winning mentality in his squad from the first day of pre-season. His players talk glowingly of his approach to tactics being fresh, as do those from Cardiff and United’s reserves, and how he made them believe Molde could be champions for a first time in the club’s 100 years. Solskjaer led them to the title in his first campaign.
The irony of Solskjaer being viewed as having doubtful credibility by a cadre who are part of a side with two league victories in 11 outings (and who last won away in the competition in late February) is clear. Solskjaer remains publicly loyal to his players, yet so dire were they in the 4-0 loss at Everton at the end of last season that there was disbelief in Marco Silva’s team.
The display did prompt Solskjaer to say: “I am going to be successful here and there are players who won’t be part of that.”
He has kept his word. Of the starting XI that day, Phil Jones and Nemanja Matic are now reserves, Chris Smalling is on loan at Roma and Fred is yet to feature in a match-day squad this term. Solskjaer is understood to have also offered stern words during half-time at Southampton two weeks ago.
None of this suggests a manager cowed by the demands of the club or weak before his squad. Solskjaer is, in fact, tougher than the easygoing persona suggests. Now, with the first rumblings of discontent, he faces the sternest test yet of his “dream” role.