Oxygen for the soul: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has breathed Manchester United back to life
Since December 22nd, Manchester United have played six competitive games of football. They won all six of them, coming up against Cardiff City, Huddersfield Town, Bournemouth, Newcastle United, Reading, and Tottenham Hotspurs. They went from being sixth on the table to level on points with fifth placed Arsenal after five consecutive Premier League wins.
Barring Mauricio Pochettino’s excellent Spurs, by no stretch of the imagination does this read like a list of Champions League caliber clubs. Cardiff, Huddersfield, and Newcastle are for that matter battling for survival in the top flight and Reading were sitting at the bottom of the Championship.
Yet, after beating clubs that one would expect Manchester United to comfortably beat (again, barring Spurs), there’s a newfound electric buzz around the club. Why is that the case?
With all due respect to Jose Mourinho and what he’s achieved at Manchester United – delivering two trophies (yes, just two, because the Community Shield does not count) and helping United reach the highest league position since Fergie departed – the 18/19 season, by all means, was disastrous and United needed to act. The disaster was taking a toll on the club both on and off the pitch. Something needed to change.
And something did.
Since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has returned to the ground where he is most fondly remembered as a hero, a 'baby-faced assassin', something’s snapped. Some sort of a time-warp has happened behind the doors of Old Trafford.
The people at Manchester United are, for the first time since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, seeing first-hand the responsibility of wearing the Manchester United badge.
Solskjaer has done literally everything and more you’d expect someone to do having been brought in to ‘steady the ship’. Because the cold fact is that it was a ship sinking at a frightening rate – 29 goals shipped and a negative goal difference was just the tip of a very ominous iceberg.
With respect to the Norwegian’s predecessor once again, there was a mystifying lack of organization, cohesion, structure, and a game-plan that didn’t include Marouane Fellaini. The players looked perplexed when they received the ball in the final third because they’ve spent the best part of the game defending their own box.
The constant rustling of influential dressing room figures such as Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial didn’t help either. At that rate back then, there would’ve been an exodus at the club including the almost-certain departure of the two prodigal Frenchmen.
Solskjaer was so effortlessly able to reassemble the pieces one after the other because he began with the most instinctive piece of all – the soul of Manchester United.
From arriving in uniform club suits to away grounds to playing some fearless football, there was evident terraforming, and a disciplined one at that.
Skepticism is a part of the game, it’s a part of life. Solskjaer’s appointment, from a fairly pessimistic vantage point, could be seen as an elaborate PR stunt to help with damage control. The fans were treated to a metaphorical beating from the lifeless performances week in week out.
There was a disconnect between the support and the club which Solskjaer could help fix (albeit it did not reflect in the fans showing up in large numbers). Appointing a man who lives and breathes for Manchester United.
What has come upon in not even a full month in-charge of one of the biggest clubs in the world is unexpected, to say the least. Not only has he done the above, but has also produced results to back him up.
The players look like they’ve been given a new lease of life. His constant “Manchester United need to this, we need to play a certain way, it’s what we’ve always been about” is not merely just a PR stunt, with their being evidence of it rubbing off onto the players.
It would take some doing to surgically remove the pragmatism instilled (and in some cases, forced) into the players over the years by Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho. Solskjaer is already succeeding at an alarming rate – with potentially many more gears yet to find.
They defended for their lives, something they’re used to doing, against a fantastic Spurs side for the best part of 30 minutes. The players looked like they could run through a brick wall for the club, and it’s only been less than a month since Solskjaer took over. Because they’re not doing it for the manager, they’re doing it for the club they’re playing for.
It would be unfair to Mourinho to say the players look ‘happy’ and ‘free’ after his departure and Solskjaer’s arrival. After all, the former is a proven winner with a trophy cabinet a few managers in the world can match.
It’s a matter of instilling values of a decorated culture, pride, and helping the players find their innate desire to play attacking, swashbuckling football before who the Norwegian refers to as “the best fans in the world”.
David de Gea’s superhuman reflexes aside, they did so after having outfoxed Pochettino’s men in the first half and earning their lead. United under Solskjaer until now have shown that they’re not going down without a fight. This is something that is reminiscent of a glorious generation of the past.
Sure, they’re still two spots below the Champions League spots, the bare minimum target for the 18/19 season. But that just goes out to show the horror show that preceded the Molde manager than anything else.
Whether or not Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer will be entrusted with a permanent contract come June, his work at the club has already begun to show that the higher-ups at United are finally making an effort to rebuild the club in a proper manner.
It starts with the one thing that’s been missing at the club over a few years now, the prosperity of Manchester United’s eternal soul. He’s brought back the pride of wearing the famous red of Manchester.