Last Sunday, after Manchester United lost to Leicester City in the FA quarterfinal, #OleOut was trending on Twitter. It was United’s first loss after a 29-game unbeaten run in domestic competitions. A couple of weeks previously, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team had beaten Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Manchester City in their lair in the Premier League derby. United are still unbeaten away from home in the league this season, placed second with 57 points from 29 matches. For the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, they are poised to secure a top-four finish in consecutive seasons. Social media, though, hardly cares about perspective.
But when professionals and pundits – a section of them – try to drag down a manager on the basis of a bad performance, then that looks somewhat agenda-driven. The FA Cup quarterfinal came on the heels of United’s Europa League Round of 16 game against AC Milan at San Siro. They had only two days to recover. In a Covid-induced manic season, matches are coming thick and fast, forcing the players to carry unbelievable workload. Solskjaer duly rested the likes of Luke Shaw and Bruno Fernandes. Paul Pogba, still regaining his full fitness, was substituted on the hour mark. But the naysayers were out in full force, tearing into the United manager for his “wrong” team selection and “poor” in-game management.
A quote from Solskjaer’s pre-quarterfinal press conference was taken out of context to stick the knife into him. What did he say? “I have been here for two-and-a-half years and coming in, as I have said so many times, I felt a big rebuild had to be made.”
He added: “In the league position you see if there’s any progress, that’s always the bread and butter of the season that you see how capable you are. The Cups are sometimes an ego thing for managers and clubs to finally win something.
“But we need to see progress and if we perform well enough the trophies will end up at the club again. It’s not like a trophy will say ‘we are back’, no. It’s gradual progression at the top of the league.”
He never spoke about trophies/Cups are being irrelevant. Rather he has always a maintained that winning a trophy can serve as a springboard, like the 1990 FA Cup triumph did for Sir Alex. Post the Leicester City loss, Solskjaer was ‘lectured’ on how four semifinal defeats and a quarterfinal exit in two years weren’t good enough for a club of United’s size. The Norwegian came to United as a player in 1996 and received his testimonial in 2008. A low-profile managerial career (before the United job) notwithstanding, he is privy to the requirements at a club of United’s size. He was mentored by a serial winner, the greatest manager in the history of the game.
Louis van Gaal helmed United to the 2016 FA Cup glory. Two days later he was sacked, because the club had failed to secure Champions League football. Match-goers at Old Trafford would attest how the team was losing its identity under the Dutchman, playing some ridiculously boring football. Jose Mourinho, always great at massaging his ego through the number of trophies he has won, annexed the League Cup and the Europa League as United manager. In December 2018, he was handed the pink slip because a top-four finish in the league became well-nigh impossible and a fractured dressing-room made his position untenable. As is his wont, Mourinho had left a scorched earth behind. Solskjaer inherited a mess when he came in as Mourinho’s successor. It wasn’t the United he knew. The club needed a serious rebuild. Restoring the United-way was the top item on the agenda.
The situation was arguably worse than November 1986, the time of Sir Alex’s arrival at United as Ron Atkinson’s replacement. It took him four years to win his first silverware. The initial focus was about rebuilding the club’s culture that served as a platform for an unabashed success for the next two decades. Thank goodness, social media didn’t exist back then.
A lot of people, including this correspondent, were deeply sceptical about Solskjaer’s success at United. After all, he was a successful manager at Molde, a Norwegian football club. As far as English top-flight football is concerned, he is a Cardiff City discard. Then again, managing one of the biggest clubs on the planet calls for a lot more than just being a tactical genius. A big club manager has to have the ability to manage politics, bureaucracy, red-tape and the immense pressure to ensure that players can just focus on playing football. This is a reason why a lot of promising and tactically astute managers fail at big clubs. David Moyes at United was a case in point, done in by the enormity of the club.
“He (Solskjaer) takes the pressure off the lads and takes it all himself. Sometimes it’s not fair, because we are the ones on the pitch and we need to take out fair share too,” Luke Shaw recently said. The left-back has been a revelation this season and a huge amount of credit goes to Solskjaer’s man-management.
After the Leicester City loss, some people claimed that Solskjaer was tactically outsmarted by his counterpart Brendan Rodgers. United conceded two goals in that game from silly individual errors, while the other one was scored from a set-piece. Solskjaer got tactically outsmarted!
The good thing is that he has the full backing of the club. Respect would be the more appropriate word; otherwise the much-needed reforms that were pending for years wouldn’t have happened. The appointment of John Murtough as football director and Darren Fletcher as technical director has Solskjaer’s imprint. He has earned himself a new and improved contract. In a pandemic-hit market, very few clubs can spend big on transfers. But Solskjaer is walking the extra mile to create a structure that will eventually usher in a sustained period of success at his beloved club. He isn’t doing it for money. The club hierarchy and the hardcore fans know that. Solskjaer doesn’t have a magic wand. He isn’t backed by petrodollars either. Patience is the need of the hour. Meanwhile, the club legend deserves respect.