Manchester United: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer takes charge of his 100th game as Manchester United manager when Arsenal visit Old Trafford on Sunday. It has been a rollercoaster ride to the Norwegian since he replaced Jose Mourinho, initially on an interim basis, in December 2018. There have been incredible highs, such as the dramatic Champions League victory against Paris Saint-Germain in March 2019, and humiliating lows, as recently as the 6-1 defeat at home to Mourinho’s Tottenham at the Premier League earlier this month.
In 2020 alone, Solskjaer has taken United back into the Champions League but advised the group to predominate in 3 cup semifinals. He has overseen the development and growth of homegrown talent, such as Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood, but he has also fought to build a powerful defence and overall team unit.
So as Solskjaer prepares to hit the century mark as United boss — winning 56 of his 99 games so far — how does he measure up? Are United back on course under their former player, or going round in circles? ESPN has attempted to find an answer.
Nurtured young players: From the beginning, Solskjaer has placed his hope from United’s homegrown young players. It started with reviving Rashford after England forward’s tough time under Jose Mourinho and contains expanded to giving sustained chances to Scott McTominay, Brandon Williams and Greenwood.Louis van Gaal was similarly expecting of United’s children during his two-year spell in charge, however, the Dutchman gave chances to too many who weren’t great enough. Solskjaer has been able to filter out the good from the indifferent, and United have a nucleus of young players who can offer the team’s foundation for the years ahead.
Made successful signings: United’s player recruitment in recent years is a recurring problem, together with the team lurching from one expensive mistake to the other, particularly through Van Gaal’s tenure. But while Solskjaer has not landed all of his targets, the huge majority of his signings have improved the team and been recruited within a clearly thought-out strategy.
Centre-back Harry Maguire and right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka have improved United defensively, while midfielder Bruno Fernandes has transformed the team in the attacking third.
Beneath Solskjaer, signings are made with an obvious role to fill and although that may seem like a simple necessity, it was not always the case prior to his appointment.
Ditched underperforming stars: Solskjaer inherited an imbalanced squad from Mourinho, which included a lot of players that were just not living up to expectations, also has ruthlessly ditched those who did not fit his blueprint for United. Romelu Lukaku has scored 41 goals in 57 games for Inter Milan since leaving United in 2019, but the Belgian was from the shape and obstructing Greenwood’s path to the first-team, so the supervisor made a big call — and the right one — by allowing him to go.
Alexis Sanchez was also dispensed with following a disastrous 18 months at Old Trafford — joining Lukaku at Inter — while Marouane Fellaini, who’d been a good servant for United, was allowed to leave for Shandong Luneng since he jarred with Solskjaer’s football philosophy. Chris Smalling (Roma), Ashley Young (Inter), Matteo Darmian (Parma) and Antonio Valencia (published ) have been offloaded since Solskjaer has attempted to remould the group.
Changed the disposition: Old Trafford was submerged in negativity by the time Mourinho was sacked, which intended Solskjaer’s first task accountable was supposed to alter the mood on and off the pitch. He did that instantly with a streak of 11 wins out of his first 12 games in charge — a sequence that changed the atmosphere inside the dressing room and one of the supporters. There have been ups and downs concerning results because of those early days, but the mood has mostly remained optimistic and there is a sense of unity in and around Old Trafford again.
Restored United’s DNA: United under Solskjaer are definitely still a work in progress, but he’s done something none of his immediate predecessors (Mourinho, Van Gaal and David Moyes) managed, or willing, to do: he’s the team playing United-style attacking football again. It will not always work, as a number of United’s effects under the Norwegian prove, but there is now a sense that the group will perform on the front rather than adopt the safety-first strategy of Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho. There have been precious few unforgettable, or exciting, moments for United because Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, but nearly all of them have come under Solskjaer.
Inconsistency: Almost two years to the project, Solskjaer has been unable to eradicate the wildly inconsistent type that has generated these extreme highs and lows. United have experienced unbelievable runs beneath Solskjaer — 11 wins from 12 in 2018-19, going unbeaten in 14 games to finish third at the end of last season — but there have also been alarming slumps, including two wins out of nine in the start of last season (United’s worst-ever Premier League start) and eight beats in 12 games in all competitions at the end of the 2018-19 campaign.
On paper, this season seems to be an improvement, with six wins from nine matches, but both defeats, against Crystal Palace and Spurs, have seen them concede nine aims. United blow cold and hot under Solskjaer, with seemingly nothing in between.
Tactics: Wednesday’s 5-0 Champions League win against RB Leipzig, when Solskjaer deployed a diamond formation in midfield and made a set of successful substitutions, was a rare example of the Norwegian winning the strategic battle against his opposite number. On a lot of occasions, Solskjaer has been outsmarted, and the largest cause for alarm is his inability to behave when things are going wrong. Just this season, the home defeats against Palace and Spurs have observed United go from bad to worse after falling behind, along with the appearances of confusion among the players on the pitch emphasize the need for much better direction from the supervisor.
A top trainer makes adjustments to alter the course of a match in a positive manner. That seldom happens with Solskjaer.
Managing upwards: Solskjaer has been able to eliminate the players who have failed to perform, but he’s stuck with all the executives that have repeatedly let him down in the transport market. Despite this unfortunate reality, Solskjaer has to understand how to successfully apply pressure on the likes of executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward and transfer negotiator Matt Judge to deliver. Solskjaer had agreed on a deal with FC Salzburg striker Erling Haaland past December, but it fell through because Woodward and Judge failed to seal the move, allowing Borussia Dortmund to sign him to get a meagre charge of about $20m instead. Haaland has gone on to score 23 goals in 26 games for his new team.
This summer, Solskjaer has seen Woodward and Judge fail to signal top targets such as Dortmund winger Jadon Sancho, Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish, RB Leipzig defender Dayot Upamecano and Birmingham midfielder Jude Bellingham.
Solskjaer does not challenge his bosses as publicly as Mourinho and Van Gaal failed, and to United supporters, his failure to do so traces at a weakness in the manager’s armoury.
No obvious plan: After 99 matches, we still don’t know Solskjaer’s strategy to take United back to the top. He has employed a 4-3-3 formation, played three in the back and set up a diamond in midfield, but it seems like he’s still trying to determine what best suits his players. It’s hard to imagine that the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Mourinho or even Mauricio Pochettino still not knowing their best strategy after 99 games in charge, but whenever United play, it is a guessing game as to how they will lineup. Certainty is the only means to success, but confusion still reigns under Solskjaer.
For each positive with Solskjaer, it is not hard to counter with a drawback. He’s done many great things in his period in charge, and it points to the lack of direction at the club prior to his birth which United have been so difficult to predict. Even today, 99 games on, he’s still having to unpick the terrible choices made by previous regimes.
But after nearly two years, there should be a clearer road map growing than the one we have at this time. The defence still wants reinforcements and the midfield remains a mystery on account of the contrasting qualities of these gamers Solskjaer has at his disposal. From an attacking standpoint, United can sabotage even the best opponents, but when their counter-attacking approach does not work — particularly against poorer teams — they lack a Plan B.
Finally, United are in a better place today than when Solskjaer arrived, but it’s been slow and frustrating progress. And even though they hammered Bundesliga leaders RB Leipzig on Wednesday, it would be no surprise to anybody if United slide up against Arsenal on Sunday.
It’s been two steps forward and one step back for large intervals of Solskjaer’s reign and as he begs for his 100th game, that still remains the case.