6 big things Ole Gunnar Solskjaer must do before the start of next season at Manchester United
Ole's at the wheel! And let's be honest: only the most misty-eyed Manchester United fans really saw it coming. His appointment as caretaker manager in mid-December was surprising, but the prospects of him landing the job on a full-time basis were always slim.
But what a transformation. Manchester United have won 14 of 19 matches under the Norwegian, have a huge chance of finishing in the top four and are remarkably through to the quarter-finals of the Champions League after turning over a 2-0 first-leg home defeat against PSG. It definitely wasn't supposed to be like this.
Few fans and former team-mates will deny that the 46-year-old deserves his big chance now, though. So what are the big items on his agenda? Appointing Mike Phelan as his new assistant seems like a given for the not-too-distant future, but here are the other pressing issues...
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1. Tie down Ander Herrera
It’s strange that with only eight games of the Premier League season left, Herrera’s future is still uncertain. He’s been a regular under Solskjaer, having featured in nine of the Norwegian’s first 10 Premier League matches before suffering hip jip, and so it’s no surprise that both parties want an amicable conclusion which ends with him staying put.
Stories this week suggested that the Spaniard was put out by United’s decision to prioritise other players’ new deals, and now PSG, Barcelona and Arsenal are being widely linked with interest in a player going for nothing at the end of the season.
It’s not like United are particularly well stocked in midfield, though, and Herrera is too good to let slip so easily – even if only to keep him as a dependable squad player for next term.
2. Ship out Alexis Sanchez
This isn't a question of whether Solskjaer wants to do this, but how he can. The Chilean is reportedly the highest-paid player in the Premier League, but has floundered from the start at Old Trafford.
But where will Sanchez go? He has three years left on his contract in Manchester, and the big question is who'll be willing to match a £350,000-per-week basic wage for a struggling 30-year-old. Good luck with that one.
3. Clarify Paul Pogba’s future
It could be pesky press reports, but there’s something that just doesn’t quite sit right with the regularity that Pogba continues to be linked away from Old Trafford. Reports from two weeks ago claiming he’d decided to stay under Solskjaer have since been conflicted, and interest from Barcelona, Real Madrid, PSG and Juventus is never far away.
You’d expect it to blow over – Pogba leaving seems far-fetched – but with agent Mino Raiola around and his client fluttering eyelashes in Madrid's direction, you can never be too sure. For Manchester United and Solskjaer’s sake, it’d be helpful if Pogba committed either way so folk at Old Trafford can get on with their lives.
4. Sign another central midfielder
The uncertainty around a handful of key central midfielders will worry Solskjaer. The rumour mill is swirling stories of Pogba’s intentions to leave, Herrera is yet to ink a deal, Fred started the season incredibly slowly and Nemanja Matic's body clicking is now ticking. A dynamic new central midfielder is needed, then, but who?
In recent weeks United have been linked with the likes of Barcelona's Ivan Rakitic, PSG rebel Adrien Rabiot and West Ham's new Premier League golden boy, Declan Rice. Whoever the Norweigan chooses to martial his new midfield, they’ll need to be able to step up almost instantly. Unfortunately - as Fred has found out this season - that’s not always easy.
5. Continue reinvigorating Romelu Lukaku
Under Jose Mourinho, Romelu Lukaku underwent a transformation – physically, as well as tactically – from an explosive striker who ran behind defences and laughed over his shoulder at ineffective offside traps, to a bulky target man whose job was to be the battering ram spearheading an attack.
This is not Solskjaer’s preference for attackers. Under him, the first choice frontline has been the speedy and nimble trio of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard.
Can he make his £75 million man work in this system? The FA Cup victory at Arsenal in January suggested so. With Lukaku starting on the right wing, the Belgian used his pace to deftly set up two goals – but these moments have been too rare for too long. Solskjaer clearly wants to change Lukaku back to the player he once was, but any old clip of the 25-year-old will quickly show a physical transformation which could make that impossible. It may be a big job.
6. Bolster at centre-back
United may have found their shooting boots under Solskjaer, but at the other end of the pitch they still look a little frail. Cheap goals against Burnley, Southampton and Wolves in recent weeks will have been a timely reminder to the Norwegian that this defence is far from finished.
Victor Lindleof has finally started to show why United forked out nearly £30 million for him, while Chris Smalling’s performances have certainly improved, but the door remains firmly open for a world-class centre-back to arrive. The options are intriguing – Harry Maguire, Samuel Umtiti, Raphael Varane and Kalidou Koulibaly are big four rumoured to be on a wishlist – but none will come cheap. Then again, Solskjaer need only peer at Merseyside to see the value of laying down big money for a top-drawer stopper. Isn't that right, Virgil?
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