While United may still be the most respected team in Manchester, they are no longer the most feared; neither are they the most attractive in town these days. Those descriptions are now more useful to make meaning of what is happening on the blue half of the city, where arguably the world’s finest tactician, Pep Guardiola, is leading a record-smashing Manchester City into new frontiers.
The recent Manchester derby result is but an indictment of how United’s stock has fallen over the years, but newly appointed manager Ole Gunner Solskjaer appeal to return to the “United Way” might just be what is need to re-animate the club ahead of what will be a transitional period next season.
A paltry 7 wins in the first 17 premier league games of the season was enough to see Man United part ways with Jose Mourinho, under whose spell the club did nothing more than flatter to deceive. After League Cup win and a Europa League triumph in his first season, and a trophy-less second place finish in his second season, Mourinho’s “third-season syndrome” timeously kicked in to see his team crumbled leading to his dismissal in the middle of his third campaign. Bereft of viable options who meet the club’s lofty requirements, especially in terms of the playing style after a largely tepid and monotonous spell under ‘The Special One’, the club looked at one of its own products in former striker, Ole Gunner Solskjaer, as a stop-gap solution, while they scour Europe for a more permanent fix. While they hoped Ole would steady the ship, they could never have imagined how much he was to impress in the dugout in coming months.
Clear of the malevolent atmosphere pervasive in Mourinho’s tenure, Solskjaer’s charges burst into new life with a rampant 5-1 victory over Cardiff City, a club the Norwegian formerly coached. This was to be the beginning of an unbeaten run of 11 games, including 10 wins, which was ended by a Mbappe-led PSG side that put two unanswered goals past United in a last 16 first-leg Champions League home defeat. Ironically, the height of Solskjaer’s spell as manager so far is the return leg clash against the same side, where they channelled their inner “Fergie time” in an inspired performance to win 3-1 in Paris, tying the score 3-3 on aggregate and making sure they go through to the quarterfinals on away goals rule. This is the game that convinced all and sundry, including the Man United board that he deserved permanent employment, and the club swiftly tied the young manager on a permanent deal.
It has been a trying 8 matches since then though, seeing only two wins out of eight games in all competitions, the rest being defeats. This includes a Champions League two-legged defeat at the hands of a Messi-inspired Barcelona. The club now finds itself in a battle for top four spot and they may very well see themselves competing in Europe’s second tier competition next season if they continue their current bad form. This, however, need not be a train-smash for the Red Devils.
Solskjaer has made all the right noises about going back to the club’s attacking philosophy which was the fabric of Sir Alex Ferguson’s 25-year reign at Old Trafford. He has spoken about fearlessness and a winning mentality that the squad ought to embody on the field, and most importantly he has vowed to return the club to their attacking ways. And even though he has come under criticism from the likes of Louis van Gaal, the Norwegian has still achieved a lot with a squad ill-equipped to carry out his vision.
The Changes Solskjaer Must Make In Pre-Season
The manager has already made it clear that there is an overhaul to follow at Manchester United in the off-season. The club has already, as per usual, been linked with some of the finest players in Europe, but should they fail to finish in a champions league position, they might find luring those players to The Theatre of Dreams relatively difficult. The answer, though, could yet lie in Manchester United own academy products. In line with the ‘Ferguson way’ under which he was tutored in his playing time, Ole has recently told media that the club is scouring the globe for players of the right talent, character and attitude. It could then be argued that the club’s own products know what it means to play for United better than most players who were developed elsewhere, and it is here where the Solskjaer should look closely.
Once David De Gea’s future at the club is secure, Crystal Palace fullback, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, must be a priority target in defence for United. The right-back has had a sterling campaign under Roy Hodgson, emerging as one of the best right backs in the league. With rivals Liverpool, Spurs and Manchester City in possession of England’s best right backs in Trent Alexander-Arnold, Kieran Trippier and Kyle Walker respectively, United would not want to miss out on Wan-Bissaka. The club has also been linked with the Spurs right back, but is unlikely to happen should the North London club clinch a top four spot and United fail. With Shaw a marauding threat on the left side, acquiring such a right back will only help the Red Devils, especially with Antonio Valencia’s time at the club coming to an end.
Ole Solskjaer arrived to a midfield that does not suit his needs, which has often seen him employ counter-attacking tactics in the more difficult matches this season. This is the area that will see the most changes with Juan Mata, Matic, Fred, and Ander Herrera sure to look for game-time elsewhere. While the latter suits the manager’s penchant for possession football, academy graduate Scot McTominay is preferred in his position and is highly regarded at the club. The manager intends to use the midfielder as a number 8 to allow him an outlet to attack. With Matic proving surplus to requirements, West Ham midfield general, Declan Rice, would fit like hand-in-glove in the United midfield and would form a solid midfield base with McTominay. Teenage midfielder Andre Gomes will be looking for a breakthrough season too, and will be lucky that the United ethos which dictate that “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough” will be well preserved under Ole. Paul Pogba has been linked with Real Madrid of late and has had his commitment to the club questioned by the likes of Man United legend-turned-pundit Gary Neville. But the French midfield ace’s stay is paramount if United is to compete at the highest level, and the manager seems to know how to unlock the best out of the star’s performances. Pogba is the team’s top scorer with 16 goals in all competitions; a bulk of those goals coming in Solskjaer’s tenure. A solid midfield base will allow Pogba to thrive in his preferred position upfield, which means the club needs to find a way to make star man stay.
The club has some of the league’s best attackers in the league on their books, with Alexis Sanchez, Romelu lukaku, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford. While the former has been an uncalibrated flop, the latter has been central to United’s attack, with Martial preferred on the left. United would benefit more, however, if the French forward was the one deployed in a central role. Capable as he is coming in from the left, his goal scoring prowess is largely wasted in that position, and the more nimble-footed Rashford would be more dangerous coming in from the wide channels.
While Lingard has filled in ably on the right, there is a feeling that the club is in need of another quality player to fill that position, with moves for Gareth Bale, Wilfried Zaha and Joao Felix mooted in recent times. But the best move would be to go for the Crystal Palace forward. The Ivorian has a lot to prove after he failed to make the grade earlier in his career at United, and as an academy graduate, he will quickly absorb Solskjaer’s vision. Mason Greenwood and Tahith Chong are the next line of clubs famed youth set-up products who will be looking to break into the team, providing the manager a wealth of options in attack in the coming season. Sanchez and Lukaku may very well decide to end their times in Manchester as both look for regular game time, but the club will hardly suffer from their departures.
Solksjaer’s philosophy is a possession-based one with a high press as he proved to compelling effect in his time at Molde. A graduation to the very summit of the English game has been eye-opening for the Norwegian, who together with his assistant Mike Phelan – soon to be appointed technical director if reports are anything to go by – will look to bring in the right kind of players to kickstart a renaissance which has hardly taken off since Sir Alex Ferguson called time on this hugely successful managerial career.