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Opinion: Solskjær’s reign at Manchester United is a tale of myths

Now that it looks likely the seemingly unsackable force has survived another disaster, next month will mark the 3-year anniversary of Ole Gunnar Solskjær being named as Manchester United manager.

Given that his last stint in England ended in relegation and an eventual sacking at Cardiff City after leaving them lingering towards the bottom of the Championship table, I’m not sure that many of us envisaged he would still be here three years later.

At the time, as an interim appointment, I think most of us agreed that was fine. Someone to come in, bring back a feel-good factor and then head off back to Norway to continue his project with Molde whilst Manchester United moved on with a manager who could lead us forward.

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During his time at United, he’s had the backing of most supporters. Almost all the reasons for keeping the faith in him – or myths as we’ll call them in this article – are not strictly related to what he has delivered on the pitch. He’s ‘brought the smiles back’. He’s ‘revitalised the club and restored its DNA’. He’s ‘given the youth a chance and put more focus on the academy’. He’s ‘rebuilt the squad’. He’s ‘playing attacking football the United Way’. But has he done any of that? Really?

The idea that we’re judging a Manchester United manager on mainly intangibles after 3 years doesn’t sit right with me. So let’s go into these ‘reasons’ or ‘myths’, depending on which side of the fence you sit.

“Given the youth a chance”

One of the biggest criticisms of Jose Mourinho is that he didn’t give young players a chance. Which on the face of it is a fair criticism. United have a rich history of blooding young players who will go on to have successful careers either here or elsewhere.

But of course, you must know by now, the media narrative is important when deciding what a manager does or doesn’t do, especially when it comes to Jose Mourinho.

The same Jose Mourinho handed Scott McTominay his debut and even created a special award for him at the annual Player Awards Ceremony. The same Jose Mourinho gave Marcus Rashford more minutes than any other player during his time here. The same Jose Mourinho wanted a then 15-year old Mason Greenwood to train with the first team.

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And yes, this is the same Jose Mourinho that was hounded for not giving the likes of Andreas Pereira and Tahith Chong a chance – the former is 25 and on loan at Flamengo and the latter is 21 playing at Birmingham, who are hopeful of making the move permanent.

Yet those criticisms that were blown out of proportion and used as a stick to beat the previous manager don’t exist anymore. Which makes you wonder why. Ole Gunnar Solskjær has given 2 academy players a consistent chance in the first team in his three years here – Brandon Williams (now on loan at Norwich) and Mason Greenwood, who was earmarked by everyone at the club as a special talent whilst Solskjær was still preparing for Kristiansund away.

Since Solskjær’s arrival, we’ve seen the likes of Angel Gomes leave the club permanently whilst many have left on loan due to not being given an opportunity in the first team, despite there being glaring issues frequently during the last 3 years and ideal scenarios to give young players a chance.

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We have persisted with centre-backs underperforming whilst Axel Tuanzebe (now 23 and on loan at Aston Villa) sat on the sidelines. We have persisted with a dysfunctional midfield whilst sending out young players such as James Garner on loan. The likes of Dylan Levitt and Ethan Laird have no clear path to the first team.

Chances for the young players at United are sparing and often in games that don’t mean anything, such as the Europa League tie against LASK and the dead-rubber against Wolves at the end of last season.

Not only are the academy talents not getting a look in, but Solskjær’s own signings also can’t seem to break in. Facundo Pellestri is currently out on loan after signing last summer and Amad would have joined him if not for an injury.

And with the likes of Jadon Sancho and Donny van de Beek struggling for game time, it makes you wonder if any of them will ever get given a chance, bar the odd League Cup game.

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To conclude, two players have broken through into the first team in his three years here… and one of those has been flung out to battle relegation with Norwich City with the undroppable Luke Shaw and Alex Telles ahead of him.

Solskjær has revitalised the academy and given the youth a chance? Give me a break.

“He’s rebuilt the squad”

First of all, let’s be clear, spending over £400m in three years isn’t Manchester United level success. Any manager in world football could improve a squad with £400m+. In fact, any account on Twitter could improve a squad if you gave them that amount of money. And to be honest, the squad has improved.

Compared to what Jose Mourinho had in his final season, it’s much better. That said, he’s wasted a lot of money too. If you want to judge a manager on what he’s spent and ‘rebuilding the squad’, that’s absolutely fine but let’s take a look at the players he has signed and see how many have been a success so far:

Daniel James

This one is quick and easy. He’s now at Leeds, a team probably at his level. He has one assist in 12 appearances so far for Leeds. Good luck to him.

Harry Maguire

United paid £80m for a player who is barely worth half that. He gets a lot of criticism, myself included, but I’ll give him credit where it’s due, he was good at Leicester. Manchester City were interested and Jose Mourinho wanted him a year earlier but I can’t say with confidence that it’s worked out at United.

He always has a mistake in him. He’s slow. And maybe most importantly – as our club captain – he lacks leadership and any kind of emotion. If he didn’t have the armband or the price tag over his head, he would have been dropped a long time ago.

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Maybe he would work in a Pep Guardiola or Jose system (for different reasons) but since he’s signed, whoever has played next to him has been made the scapegoat. He’s a decent enough centre-back and was brilliant in a back three at the European Championships but nothing more.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka

Erratic. Lacks any kind of positional intelligence. Sometimes looks like he’s never seen a football before in his life.

If he’s defending 1v1, he’s probably one of the best in the world. He also has a great recovery pace and good composure (sometimes) when under pressure.

Is that enough for a full-back at one of the biggest clubs in the world? Absolutely not. Was he worth the £50m that we paid to Crystal Palace? Again, it’s a resounding no.

I don’t think the next manager will be thankful for having Wan-Bissaka in the squad, especially if they plan to play an attacking brand of football. When you look at Trent Alexander-Arnold at Liverpool (academy graduate) or Joao Cancelo at Manchester City (who was bought for the same price as Wan-Bissaka), it’s like night and day.

Bruno Fernandes

I think most can agree that the signing of Bruno Fernandes has worked. It’s difficult to imagine where Manchester United would be without him. A player that was probably third or fourth choice on the club’s recruitment list but credit where it’s due, they bit the bullet when the pressure was on and the gamble paid off.

This current team revolves around Bruno Fernandes and he’s probably got more freedom than you’d like but you can’t argue when he delivers more often than not. The ‘Bruno go brrrr’ meme is probably the most accurate that I’ve ever seen on Twitter and sums up United’s attacking plans in an unserious nutshell.

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A great player who with discipline under the right coach could be even better. His numbers may suffer but the team wouldn’t – it’s an exciting thought. It’s a pity it’s just a thought.

Odion Ighalo

A £6m loan fee for what was essentially a fan living his dream. I’m not really sure what else to say.

Donny van de Beek

This is another where there isn’t too much to say. £35/40m and he’s rarely seen the pitch, even when the team is underperforming. It’s hard not to feel sorry for him but if Solskjær stays, which looks likely, I can’t see his future being at Old Trafford.

Amad

Rarely given a chance and it seems as though his next move will be a loan somewhere for regular football. Exciting prospect but with the attack already top-heavy in the first team, it’s difficult to see where or when he’ll get a chance.

Alex Telles

Very difficult to judge him as he’s played so little football. Luke Shaw will be in starting line-up if fit. It seems he’ll only get given a chance if Shaw gets injured or if there’s a ‘nothing game’ to play.

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Edinson Cavani

Signed as a free agent on deadline day despite being available for months before. Nobody can doubt his contribution but it’s likely this season will be his last at United.

Facundo Pellistri

A youth player on loan with no obvious route into the first team.

Raphaël Varane

So far, Varane has been a great signing – he has the potential to be the best for years considering the amount he cost – but it’s too early to judge at United. There’s no doubt he improves the first-team when he’s fit.

Jadon Sancho

We’re in danger of filing Sancho next to Van de Beek. He is one of the hottest prospects in world football, who was chased for 2 years by Solskjær, only to spend most of his time so far at the club watching from the dugout.

It’s early and I’m sure his time will come but it makes you wonder what must be going through his head seeing a manager revert to a 3-5-2 and getting thrown on to rescue games with little time remaining. Dropped from the most recent England squad, he needs to be given a consistent run in this team after the international break.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Cristiano Ronaldo is Cristiano Ronaldo. What else is there to say? A resounding success already unless you ask those who bizarrely blame him for the current form, which includes shipping 5 at home to Liverpool and 4 away to Leicester.

All in all, over £400m has been spent on the squad he inherited to bring in 13 players. Out of those 13, in my opinion, I would be confident in saying that three of them have been an undoubted success – Bruno Fernandes, Edinson Cavani and Cristiano Ronaldo. One of which was a free agent.

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The rest are in limbo, not good enough, left or simply not getting game time. I’m sure there will be people out there who want to make a case for Maguire and Wan-Bissaka being a success, so sure, make it 5 just to add some balance to the argument. Although when you spend £130m on two defenders, you’d expect a lot more bang for your buck which I don’t think anyone can question.

When it comes down to it the squad has improved, there are some incredible talents there but let’s be real, nobody needed Ole Gunnar Solskjær to spend this money or sign these players. If anything, there’s an argument to say that a better manager would have spent that £400m wiser by actually buying players that fit a specific system. There’s also an argument to say that he’s holding back some of the players he signed himself.

Better squad? Yep. Do we need to get down on our knees to praise Solskjær for spending some money? Obviously not.

“He’s brought the DNA back and we’re playing ‘The United Way’”

Many are quick to judge previous managers on their style of football but turn a blind eye to what Solskjær’s teams serve up on a frequent basis.

Outside of the multiple hammerings the team has taken over the past three years – 4-0 v Everton, 6-1 v Spurs and more recently 5-0 v Liverpool – the football most of the time is clueless and far from what you’d consider ‘attacking football’ – or at least attacking football with a consistent structure.

United had eight 0-0 draws last season alone under Solskjær – something that never happened under Jose Mourinho, David Moyes or even Louis Van Gaal.

Solskjær’s United has only outscored Mourinho’s 17/18 team once in the Premier League and that was last season. In 17/18, United scored 68 goals whilst they scored 73 in 20/21 – essentially the 9-0 v Southampton the obscure difference. That’s a ‘defensive dinosaur’ against a ‘progressive manager’ who plays ‘The United Way’.

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There’s this idea that Solskjær’s United play free-flowing attacking football which is wave after wave of sustained attacks. Some say it’s exhilarating football that intertwines with the DNA of Manchester United – win, lose or draw. But is it?

Don’t get me wrong, Manchester United have had some great runs under Solskjær where the football has been good. His interim period and just after Project Restart are the two spells that stand out but that was all they were – spells. We’re three years into whatever Solskjær’s vision is and we’re on the back of three games where we’ve deployed a back five.

It depends on how you define what ‘The United Way’ is.

If you think ‘The United Way’ is winning nothing, shelving the youth players and chopping and changing the formation because you’re leaking goals then yes, this is ‘The United Way’.

If not, I’ve got some news for you… Solskjær playing ‘The United Way’ is just another myth fabricated by those desperate to believe he’s the man to restore the glory days.

“He’s improved the atmosphere around the club”

In 18/19, we were told that Jose Mourinho left a toxic dressing room and the club was in a state of disrepair. In reality, he’d fallen out with the board – with good reason – and a handful of the senior players. This happens in football clubs and the manager pays the ultimate price by losing his job.

Can someone please explain why there is such a huge focus on ‘building the club back up’ from where Mourinho left it? Surely when Mourinho left, the toxicity left with him?

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That same squad finished 2nd a few months prior and reached an FA Cup Final.

Everyone was smiling for a while. Paul Pogba started to play well. United got some good results and then towards the back end of 18/19, we reverted to type.

Let’s fast-forward to this season.

We’re seeing multiple briefs that the players are unhappy and don’t think the coaching is up to standards. Multiple players are unhappy, including the likes of Donny van de Beek and Bruno Fernandes. Paul Pogba still wants to leave. The club is still a mess from an operational point of view.

The idea that Solskjær came in like a white knight to save the club from disaster is honestly ridiculous.

“He’s doing a good job”

Outside of the reasons I’ve already mentioned, the overall impression from some people is that he’s done a good job.

Even worse, the general consensus is that his predecessors failed. Yeah, the same guys who actually won trophies.

He is the manager of Manchester United and is being judged as if he inherited Burnley’s squad.

We’re almost three years into his reign and he has a lower PPG (points per game) than the manager he replaced, no trophies and hasn’t even managed to qualify from a Champions League group – yet. He’s made one final so far, the Europa League final, after exiting the Champions League in humiliating fashion.

LEIPZIG, GERMANY – DECEMBER 08: Angelino of RB Leipzig scores his team’s first goal during the UEFA Champions League Group H stage match between RB Leipzig and Manchester United at Red Bull Arena on December 08, 2020 in Leipzig, Germany. (Photo by Boris Streubel/Getty Images)

Many point to the fact he finished 2nd last season, ignoring Liverpool’s injury crisis and Chelsea sacking their manager mid-season. The season prior we finished just 4 points ahead of 5th placed Leicester who had their own injury crisis and level on points with Lampard’s Chelsea – who has recently been linked to the Norwich City job.

The facts when laid bare are pretty simple

3 years

£400m+ spent

No trophies

2 academy graduates given a consistent chance

No defined style or evidence of the fabled ‘attacking football’

Toxic atmosphere – in the dressing room and the fanbase

Club structure is still a complete mess

If this is your ‘Cultural Reboot’ or ‘The United Way’, you can keep it.

Ole Gunnar Solskjær is still the Manchester United manager for one reason. It’s because he is doing a good job. The sad truth, however, is he’s doing a good job for the Glazers and not the fans.

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