Ole's at the Wheel!
Updated: Nov 8, 2020
Following Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to step down from his duties in May 2013, Manchester United have been straying further and further away from their former glory years. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has steadied the ship and, just like Frank Lampard and Mikel Arteta, has emerged as the manager to get his ex-team back to the summit of English football.
The 2019/20 season was Solskjaer’s first full season at the helm of the United first-team, after occupying a caretaker position from December 2018 until the following March. He was also in charge of the club’s reserves from 2008 until 2011.
This past season was a fair bit a rollercoaster. The team got off to a flyer at the start of this season, having bamboozled Chelsea 4-0 in front of the Stretford End on the opening day; the mood around the club was an extremely effervescent one.
However until Christmas, United had a very mixed bag of results – picking up just 5 more league wins. The arrival of Bruno Fernandes reinvigorated the squad with his immediate impact and gutsy attitude. The meteoric rise of young prodigy Mason Greenwood, as well as the return of both Marcus Rashford & Paul Pogba from injuries, also proved substantial in United’s bid to qualify for Europe’s elite.
Solskjaer bought in three players for the start of the season and two more in the January transfer window:
Aaron Wan-Bissaka came in at a time when United were desperate for a first-choice right-back, with makeshift fullbacks Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young filling in after the departure of Rafael back in 2015. Bissaka immediately showed why United decided to splash the cash on him, and he ended the season with the most tackles (129) in the league.
Out of Ole’s summer signings, the 21-year-old defender had the most significant lasting impact.
Jacob Harry Maguire arrived from Leicester City for a mammoth £80 million, becoming the world’s most expensive defender. Similarly to his predecessor in that category, Virgil van Dijk, Maguire displayed strong leadership in the heart of defence.
Ashley Young’s departure to Italy saw United’s captain armband fall unto Maguire, who had already been skippering the team regularly up until then. However once he became club captain the heaps of pressure gradually sunk down on him.
Too many a time was Maguire on the end of defensive errors, some leading to United conceding goals.
Standing at 6'4'' Maguire scored only one headed goal despite being in the penalty box for the vast majority, if not all, of United’s 204 corners in the Premier League this season. Maguire did score a vital goal in the FA Cup tie versus Norwich, to send United to the semis at Wembley.
However his first season in Red seemed a huge injustice to his price tag. More and more towards the season’s closing, it became increasingly difficult to exonerate him for his errors.
Dan James had a dream start to life in the red shirt, scoring on his United debut vs Chelsea after coming on as a sub. James was still reeling from grief, having lost his father days before completing his move to the Red Devils. He scored two more goals in United’s next three fixtures.
James struggled from then on and did not manage another league goal during his first season. He did score in United’s 5-0 win over LASK in the Europa League in March.
Going forward he needs to become more of a goal threat. I see him being a terrific impact sub – his blistering pace and tendency to draw fouls could be pivotal in catching out a defence, especially in the dying minutes of matches.
Odion Ighalo arrived in January on loan from Shanghai Shenhua. A boyhood United fan, Ighalo embraced his dream of representing the badge. When first linked with a move for the Nigerian striker, United were questioned for not going after a superstar no. 9, but Ighalo had made it clear that he was only too happy to be at the club, not to mention on a slashed wage.
He has shown a superb attitude and true qualities of a typical centre-forward, and been a great example & role model for Anthony Martial. Ighalo has netted five times in all competitions and looks likely to get minutes in the remaining Europa League fixtures.
Bruno Fernandes has been nothing short of a revelation since arriving at Old Trafford. The dressing room was brought back to life through Bruno’s performances as well as his leadership and charisma both on and off the field. Fernandes was instrumental in United’s quest for Champions League football next season. His creativity has been splendid and his work-rate is also very refreshing to watch.
He was instantly adored amongst fans and he seems determined on winning silverware with United.
Bruno’s arrival came at a crucial time and he has given the team exactly what they were missing. He ended the season with 15 goal contributions in 14 league games – the highest in PL history for a January signing.
Following a 4-0 humiliation at the hands of Everton in April 2019, Solskjaer stated that he will succeed at Man Utd and that some players would not remain at the club to enjoy that success.
So far Solskjaer has been ruthless in terms of axing players who he believes to be not United material. Darmian, Fellaini, Lukaku, and Young (and others) have all found themselves discarded and one can expect for a handful more to join this list including the likes of Dalot, Jones, Lingard, Mata, Rojo, and Sanchez – all of whom are on the fringe and have an enhanced chance of leaving the Theatre of Dreams in the near future.
Solskjaer plans to strengthen his options in depth in an attempt to restore the Man United that he experienced as a player under Sir Alex.
United’s league season was up-and-down but after the arrival of Fernandes they did not lose a Premier League game, and secured Champions League qualification by finishing 3rd in the PL. They reached the semis in both the FA Cup and the league cup, coming up short against Man City & Chelsea.
After cruising through their Europa League group, United eased past Club Brugge of Belgium 5-1 on aggregate in the Round of 32; and also have a 5-0 aggregate lead in the Round of 16 against LASK (Austria) heading into the reverse leg.
Having already qualified for UCL, there is less pressure on Solskjaer’s men to capture Europa glory this season however trophy success in Ole’s first full season would undoubtedly buy him some more time in his United project.
Solskjaer has not been afraid to rely on youth, with Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams emerging as first team regulars. Other academy products Chong, Garner, Laird, and Levitt have all featured for the Reds this season.
Teden Mengi (18) is also pushing through the ranks and could play a part in United’s return fixture at home to LASK.
Going into the 2020/21 season it is ever so clear that there are still a good few pieces of the jigsaw to be filled in by Man Utd – including a new star winger and have been widely linked with Jadon Sancho (20) of Borussia Dortmund. Sancho had 33 goal contributions for Dortmund in the 2019/20 Bundesliga.
The 20-year-old English international has earned 11 caps for the Three Lions. A prospective attack force of Greenwood-Martial-Rashford-Sancho would be deadly to say the least.
United could also use additional creativity in the centre of the park. Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish (24), was Villa's standout performer this past season and has been linked with a move to Old Trafford.
Grealish is a splendid dribbler of the ball and enjoys playing down the left channel; he would provide tough competition for Bruno Fernandes. However having survived relegation with Villa, Grealish won’t come cheap for any potential buyers.
A left-footed centre-half might also be on the cards to arrive at Old Trafford in the coming weeks. Bringing in Jan Vertonghen on a free transfer would be a smart piece of business by United.
Despite turning 33 this year, Vertonghen has spent eight seasons in the Premier League at Spurs. With 118 national team appearances to his name, the Belgian defender offers great experience at the back and perhaps has a good season or two left in him.
With United’s midfield anchor role currently belonging to 32-year-old Nemanja Matić, it would be wise to get his successor through the doors so long. Step up, Wilfred Ndidi (23) of Leicester City. Ndidi has generally impressed during his three-year spell in England and placed second highest for tackles (128) in the Premier League this past season, behind only Wan-Bissaka.
Solskjaer has a big decision to make regarding who his starting goalkeeper is going to be come next season. David De Gea has increasingly made far too many blunders in the United goal, mostly handling errors.
Home-grown keeper Dean Henderson enjoyed a second loan spell at Sheffield United where he kept 13 Premier League clean sheets – three behind Golden Glove winner Ederson. Henderson (23) has made it clear that he has intentions to be #1 for both United and England and has no plans on playing backup to 29-year-old De Gea. Considering Henderson’s rise as well as De Gea’s form (and hefty wage bill), many are beginning to ponder as to whether De Gea’s time at Old Trafford is up.
It would not come as a surprise should Ole begin selecting Henderson over the Spaniard come next season.
Perhaps United’s biggest area of concern is not on the pitch but rather in the boardroom. For numerous years the Reds have been linked with a director of football to work as a middleman between the management team and the executive. Former manager Louis van Gaal claimed that Vice-Chairman Ed Woodward was “installed with zero understanding of football”.
Pre-Solskjaer, Woodward oversaw a fortune of questionable transfers. However since Solskjaer took the job, the recruitment has been significantly better and a footballing director would only enhance Utd’s reputation of investing wisely on the right players.
Ex-goalie Edwin van der Sar, currently CEO at Ajax, would be an ideal candidate to work alongside Woodward, and former teammates Solskjaer and Carrick. United are in dire need of someone qualified to make football-related decisions.
There has also been speculation about a return for Eric Cantona, king of the Stretford End, in an ambassadorial role. Cantona retired in 1997.
Overall, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer seems to be guiding United in the right direction. He has brought back that feel-good factor to being a part of the club, and has his sights set on restoring the Manchester United DNA that was instilled unto him back during his playing days. His man-management of players, compared to some of his predecessors, has been top-notch. It could not be clearer that he has the club at heart and that he is determined to be the man to get them back to winning trophies regularly.