Solskjær has achieved at Manchester United what Mourinho and van Gaal never could

Mason Greenwood celebrates his goal in a 3-1 Manchester United comeback win against Tottenham
Mason Greenwood celebrates his goal in a 3-1 Manchester United comeback win against Tottenham
Modified 02 May 2021

More than two years into his managerial reign at Manchester United, opinion among fans about Ole Gunnar Solskjær is mixed. But there is no doubt that the Norwegian club legend is far more popular than his most recent predecessors.

While he is yet to win a trophy (like van Gaal and Mourinho did), few would argue that the current iteration of Manchester United is the best since Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement.

It is surprising that a manager whose only previous experience at elite European level is a 9-month stint at Cardiff City has managed to outperform Champions League-winning coaches with multiple league titles in multiple countries.

Everyone expected Solskjær's Manchester United to score more goals than Mourinho's or van Gaal's. Under the 48-year-old, the Red Devils have scored 5 or more goals in a match on 9 distinct occasions compared to just twice under their previous bosses.

What has come as the biggest revelation (especially over the last few months), however, is that Manchester United are slowly becoming incredibly hard to defeat, which is what Mourinho and van Gaal strived for the most during their tenures, but failed to accomplish.

Red Devils on a dream run of just 1 defeat in 22 matches

Manchester United have lost just one match since the end of January (albeit a 3-1 defeat to Leicester that knocked them out of the FA Cup). In that period, they have faced Arsenal, Chelsea, Man City, Tottenham, AC Milan and Roma.

United have lost just 4 games in the Premier League this season (2 of those came in their first 3 games - surely the consequence of a practically non-existent pre-season). Although there are 5 games to go, the last time they lost fewer than 5 matches in the Premier League was Ferguson's penultimate title-winning 2010/11 season.

It's not that Solskjær has miraculously found a reserve of defensive resilience at the club that was missing earlier - United conceded fewer or an equal number of goals in 3 of the last 6 seasons (again, there are 5 games to go and that could change).

This is a Manchester United side that has more grit and determination. They still make mistakes (sometimes ones that are laughably Sunday-league level). But no side in the top flight this season has won more points (28 out of a total of 67) from losing positions.

From a long-time supporter's perspective, the last Manchester United squad that showed similar levels of fight was Sir Alex's final one in 2012/13.

And this was exactly what Mourinho and van Gaal wanted as well, and perhaps not in the way Solskjær has achieved it. The former Real Madrid and Barcelona managers always set out their sides not to lose - they did it by focusing on defense before anything else. It was a pretty simple strategy - you don't lose if you don't concede.

Predictably, it led to multiple snooze-fests as Old Trafford quickly came to be associated with sub-standard football.

Which is not to say that Solskjær is fine with Manchester United not defending (he did spend £80 million to sign the most expensive defender in football history). He just seems to be equally comfortable with his team outscoring their opponents.

Man management at its best

Solskjær does not seem to be much of a tactician like his predecessors, but that hasn't stopped him from eclipsing them. What he does excel at is man-management.

Burnley v Manchester United - Premier League
Burnley v Manchester United - Premier League

Mourinho and van Gaal were increasingly alienating and scapegoating their players towards the end of their tenures (Mourinho's spectacular fallout with Luke Shaw and Paul Pogba turned out to be the biggest talking points of his legacy at Manchester United).

As Pogba himself said recently, one of Solskjær's biggest priorities at the club seems to be keeping every member of the squad happy. It was never a priority for Mourinho, but clearly a more upbeat dressing room atmosphere is reflected in the results on the pitch.

Solskjær's handling of issues with players has gradually become incredibly successful.

There are multiple examples - Greenwood's transition to the first team, his spell of bad form at the start of this campaign, Anthony Martial's dips and peaks in form, Pogba's numerous injuries.

Even Donny van de Beek, who has barely featured following his move from Ajax in the summer, seems happy to be playing his bit-part role this season. Almost everyone agrees that he is set for a big campaign in 21/22.

The result of all this is that whatever team Solskjær puts out on the pitch, there are 11 players who want to fight for their manager, and for the Manchester United badge. While he may not have the same quality of players at the disposal of Manchester City or Chelsea, Solskjær seems to consistently bring out the best in his players.

Sir Alex himself was a master at man-management. It is poetic that his former disciple is beginning to take Manchester United back to where they belong using the same principles.

Flashes of the old Manchester United

Despite all this progress, there's still a long way to go for title number 21. Manchester City have completely changed the dynamics of the Premier League under Pep Guardiola.

Manchester United are getting there though. They are now better equipped to build for the future than they ever were, and morale is higher than it has been in almost 8 years.

Winning the Europa League this season would be a massive statement of intent. While Mourinho did win it 4 years ago, the most difficult opponent they had to overcome was a pre-Erik ten Hag Ajax Amsterdam in the final. This season, Solskjær has already beaten Real Sociedad, AC Milan and Roma.

Champions League football for next season is virtually guaranteed. Reclaiming the league may take a year or five, but Manchester United will get there eventually.

Solskjær has already made them one of the most difficult teams to beat in England. He just has to start winning more games now, and a strong summer transfer window could go a long way in helping him do that.

Published 02 May 2021
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