It has now been over a month since Manchester United lost a football match. During that time Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side have scored six goals in the FA Cup, defeated Manchester City in the Carabao Cup, and claimed seven Premier League points from a possible nine. They have also conceded just one goal in their last six games.
Although the victory over their city rivals was a hollow result over the two legs, and the toughest challenge offered by Tranmere Rovers in the FA Cup was the playing surface, there are clear signs of progress within a side that has been subjected to more media scrutiny and criticism than any other.
Appointment at a time of permanent transition
The permanent appointment of Solskjær has been a regular topic of debate over the course of the last year, and labelled as one of the worst decisions made by the club in recent history. The demise of Manchester United since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson has filled countless column inches, and the seemingly endless period of transition appears no closer to evolving into a new era of success.
But while the Norwegian has taken the brunt of the blame, his actions have offered hope of a brighter future. Daniel James, Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Odion Ighalo and Bruno Fernandes have all arrived during his tenure, and there are more positives than negatives to take from this collective recruitment. In addition, Mason Greenwood has established himself in the squad, and his elevation can act as a sixth new signing.
During Solskjær’s interim period as manager, the former striker made a significant impression on the form of Marcus Rashford. A similar development has recently occurred with the upturn in form of Anthony Martial, and his recent goalscoring form his reminiscent of Solskjær in his ‘baby-faced assassin’ prime. These are the elements of his coaching that are not always immediately apparent in an era when managerial talent is based solely on the last result.
But while Solskjær is slowly bringing the best out of the majority of his squad, his relationship with midfielder Paul Pogba continues to dominate the headlines. Although the World Cup winner is currently sidelined, he remains one of the most talked-about figures at Old Trafford. Dealing with difficult players effectively is a key aspect of managing at the very highest level, and split between the French star and his manager does not reflect well on Solskjær’s control of the changing room.
However, he is not the first or last manager to enter into a public fall-out with a high-maintenance player. Sir Alex will appreciate more than anyone else the frustration of dealing with Pogba having overseen his initial departure to Juventus in 2012. The Scot also had well-documented disagreements with David Beckham, Roy Keane and others.
Pep Guardiola and Zlatan Ibrahimović had a famously difficult relationship at Barcelona. Zinedine Zidane and José Mourinho are amongst the other greats that have seen their authority questioned at Real Madrid. The fact that Brian Clough and Billy Bremner never connected at Leeds United during the 1970s confirms that this is nothing new.
Pogba remains a thorn in Solskjær's side and his presence undermines the positive work of the manager. There is a clear rift between the pair, and the philosophy that Solskjær is trying to implement is not one that Pogba is willing to invest in. His departure will be a positive for the manager, and it is clear that the form he showed for France at the 2018 World Cup will not be repeated at Old Trafford anytime soon.
Solskjær is assured of his place in Manchester United folklore thanks to his winning goal in the 1999 Champions League final. Caught-up in the euphoria of the Champions League victory over Paris Saint-Germain this time last year, a string of Old Trafford legends used their status to push public opinion towards Solskjær as opposed to another big name manager who would demand an even bigger transfer budget.
That is not to say that Solskjær has not spent significantly since his appointment, but the profile of the new arrivals has shifted in comparison to that of his predecessors. Solskjær understands the club, the history and the culture, and does it with an appreciation of the values that the success he enjoyed there during his own playing career was built upon.
But management is a very different experience, and while Solskjær has shown his coaching credentials in terms of educating his strikers through his own experiences as a player, managing Molde FK and Cardiff City does little to prepare you for dealing with daily business as the figurehead of one of the biggest clubs in the world.
Targetting the noisy neighbours
Over the course of the last decade, a shift in power has seen the blue side of Manchester become perennial trophy winners, and the 'noisy neighbours' have more than lived up to the label famously bestowed upon them by Sir Alex when their foreign investment arrived. Their success has done nothing but emphasises the struggles at Manchester United.
Following the retirement of Sir Alex, and the failure of David Moyes to make the seismic transition seamless, United have been playing catch-up to City and the subsequent panic purchases and appointments have contributed to their downfall. When Guardiola arrived at the Etihad Stadium in the summer of 2016, United attempted to counter the move with the appointment of Mourinho.
The move made sense at the time, and rekindling the rivalry that had defined a series of El Clasico fixtures between the pair during their time at Barcelona and Real Madrid seemed the only way that United could keep City within touching distance, such was the reputation that Guardiola arrived with. But the same sparks did not fly between them this time around, and City came out well on top.
However, while United have failed to keep up with the progress that City have made, recent events will offer hope of redemption for Solskjær and this side. A two-year ban from the Champions League and Europa League is set to have a detrimental effect on Guardiola and his squad, and with players unlikely to hang around should the ban remain in force, City could drop to within catching distance for United.
If United can get City in their sights, it will offer a timely boost for Solskjær. The victory over Watford on Sunday has propelled the team into a Champions League place, and if they can return to Europe's premier club competition next season, then they will have the edge over their rivals in attracting the signings necessary to restore their tarnished status in the domestic game.
Experience is key
Although such a shift does largely depend on Manchester City's European ban remaining in force, Solskjær is capable of making this next step with this team, based on current form. There is a new belief within the squad that they can get results, and while consistency has been considerably lacking this season, it appears that Fernandes has offered a new dimension in midfield that has lifted the entire squad.
But there are limits to how many steps forward Manchester United can make under Solskjær. If the club are to realistically and consistently challenge the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City while competing in the latter stages of the Champions League, they need a manager who knows what it takes to do so. Solskjær has shown recently he can move them closer to that platform, but maintaining that level demands much, much more.
In the short-term, Manchester United fans must appreciate where they are as a team, and accept what the club has become. Their rivals have become stronger during their extended time of transition, and they have no divine right to return to the top anytime soon, domestically or in Europe.
Solskjær is a club legend and he appreciates the golden opportunity this job has presented him with. Sadly, the long-term ambition is ultimately beyond his current managerial capacity, and he cannot be afforded the time necessary to grow into the role. He will be a better manager for the experience, but Manchester United cannot wait for him to reach the level of their immediate aim.