I’ve seen it said recently that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looks haggard because of the stress of the Manchester United job. The evidence is usually some four-second GIF taken off the TV which doesn’t capture him in the best light, but which goes viral online because algorithms are built to like extremes and feed attention.
But it’s all bollocks. The Norwegian isn’t crumbling at all. I spoke to him on Friday and would describe him as animated, passionate, precise and absolutely determined to get United back to the top.
He gets a few things wrong. He thinks that Kristiansund is the greatest city on earth – better than New York, Paris or London. But what’s wrong in him having pride in his hometown, the place where his football obsession started? It’s where he studied tactics from the age of 14, while cycling from block to block to recruit players to play in his local team – which went under a name which was a compound of those of his three favourite players, Maradona, Cruyff and Platini.
Solskjaer knows exactly what he’s got to do and wants to do. He doesn’t suffer fools and knows which players he would like to keep as well as those have no future under him. He is under no illusions that while he builds for the long term he has to still get results now.
He is not the soft touch many thought he would be. He’s hammered players for their behaviour this season, disciplined them too. Some made it public, some didn’t. He has to deal with a whole range of issues that his mentor Sir Alex Ferguson (with whom he’s still in regular touch – no ego problems there) didn’t.
Social media brings its own problems. Agents, too. Inheriting a team that wasn’t his own is no easier than it was for Ferguson, but he won’t have three years grace before the protest banners come out, because patience is shorter and demands higher among fans than it was in the 1980s. Solskjaer has won 23 of his first 46 games as United manager, Ferguson won 21 – and he wasn’t playing the likes of Barcelona.
That expectations are higher these days is not unreasonable, given United have the highest wage bill in the league, but Solskjaer is hardly to blame for the poor recruitment that went on before he was appointed.
United being crap and the noise around it hardly helps him do his job, but he’s never stopped receiving support from fans at games. Now he needs fans to be patient. He’s had a rough time since March, but those damning statistics bandied around showing his results since getting the job full time (as if what he did as caretaker didn’t matter), the comments about him being gone by Christmas, and rumours about Pochettino being the man in waiting have started to fade.
United are four points behind where they were at this stage in the league this time last season. Let’s not pretend that 16 points from 12 games is anything more than awful, but generally the mood is optimistic with more than a little belief that things are starting to pick up.
Since that woeful defeat at Newcastle last month, United have won five, drawn once and lost at Bournemouth. Three of those wins were away. If you’re going to be a cynic – and they are queuing up to pronounce on Solskjaer – then you can rightly say that Partizan Belgrade are of a lower quality, Norwich’s form has caved and Chelsea didn’t have their best XI out, but United won three away games far from home (Norwich seems further east than Astana when travelled by coach) in six days and that League Cup win at Stamford Bridge was superb.
That set up United up with a quarter-final tie with Colchester United. With respect to the Us and their 8,495 travelling fans (average home crowd 3,640), the eighth team in England’s fourth division at home is the kindest draw United could have hoped for. Winning the EFL Cup would be perfect for Solskjaer this season – but City, Liverpool, Leicester and Everton are still in it.
The Europa League has gone to plan. Below the first team, the under 23s – a side who play with talented 16-year-olds – have won every game against League One teams in the EFL Trophy.
No point in pretending that these compensate for what is happening in the Premier League, but United’s first team are also the only side to have taken points off European champions Liverpool/THIS MEANS MORE (TM) FC since March – and were five minutes from beating them. Look at the top of the Premier League table, a peak United are currently miles off. United have also defeated Leicester City the last three times they’ve met, bested Chelsea twice this season, drawn against Arsenal when they were leading. Not one of the top eight has beaten United so far.
This run has come without Paul Pogba, the team’s most talented player. It has come with a team who had an average age of 23 against Brighton. Six of the lads who played on Sunday came through the youth system. Anthony Martial didn’t but he’s showing the form hoped for rather than expected after (too) much inconsistency. There will be new departures, new players and further set-backs, but when they lost at Bournemouth the squad went over the game together, studying what they did wrong with a view to rectifying the errors against a Brighton team that had won three of their four previous games. It worked.
And, thanks to the efforts of the vocal fans in The Red Army, a group who strode into the ground on Sunday chanting ‘Bring on United’, a group Solskjaer fully approves of, games are being played in front of a decent atmosphere where players are not booed off when they’re substituted.
Solskjaer is popular among coaches and staff and fans. None know if he’s the long term answer, some even think he’s been brought in to do the hard yards, to right the good ship Manchester United and give it a solid platform and springboard to future successes for another boss to enjoy. Others think he needs a brilliant experienced coach next to him – a Carlos Queiroz to be a hard bastard with the players – but Solskjaer trusts his staff and knows what it means to be a United manager.
On Friday he attended the annual dinner of the club’s disabled supporters association and spoke with passion and knowledge about Manchester United. He received a sustained standing ovation.
He was talking to those pre-disposed to like him, people who invest much emotional and physical effort into the fortunes of a football club, but he’s no puppet master, there to smile and glad hand the masses, the anti-Mourinho if you like (though Jose was actually extremely courteous when meeting fans away from the media glare).
Solskjaer may no longer have a baby face, but he’s got a stronger sustenance than the lily livers calling for him to go only a month ago.
And there’s still loads to do. The away form, with one win from six in the league, is poor. The next two games are at Bramall Lane and City, but United fans genuinely do have a manager who is not being swallowed up by the job, who does not think he’s leaving after his contract is up, who does not brief of other suitors to the media, doesn’t bounce around in a passive-aggressive manner and hasn’t needed a new set of teeth.
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