It might sound hyperbolic but the future of Manchester United – at least for the next five years – on the pitch is in the hands of Ole Gunnar Solksjaer. That is how serious or how important I consider his caretaker-manager appointment.
When David Moyes took over from Sir Alex Ferguson in July of 2013 he made one of the most horrendous mistakes possible when taking over at a club the size of United – he sacked the backroom staff that had worked for the retiring previous manager.
To this day I have never been able to understand how Moyes thought it intelligent or clever that he could shift his backroom staff from Everton to United and make them work successfully with a team of multiple title winners. He did not stop there, he went on to make comments like “we know we need to improve the squad to be able to challenge for top honours” or words to that effect.
You arrive from Everton, where you never won anything in your whole career and you are dissing a dressing room of multiple league title winners and Champions League winners? How? Why? It was not a surprise he failed spectacularly and was duly sacked.
Enter Louis van Gaal with Ryan Giggs as his assistant manager. The impression was that the Dutch man will finish his 3 year contract and Giggs – the club’s longest serving player – will then take over. All seemed pretty well laid out.
The football played by Van Gaal’s United was controlled possession football that bored many people nearly to death. He was a control freak on and off the pitch and was really past his time as a top level manager when he arrived. However, under him the club won his two league visits to Anfield, won 1 and lost 1 at the Etihad and same at the Emirates.
In his final season United won the FA Cup – the 2nd biggest trophy in England. They finished 5th on GD to Man City but he was sacked the same evening after winning the FA Cup at Wembley.
Enter Jose Mourinho. The Portuguese arrived with all the fanfare of “A serial winner” and accolades of what he had won in the past. In truth, from 2003 to 2010, the Portuguese was a proper serial winner and a guarantor of League titles wherever he went.
The arrival of Mourinho set Manchester United back by those years he was in charge. He never got the club challenging for the title despite spending more money than his previous 2 predecessors. Instead he left a club with many players feeling shackled and fan base he managed to split with his personality.
Big clubs are not allowed transition in the modern game. They earn too much money and have way too much money to lose should they miss out on the lucrative and skewed UEFA Champions League. The Premier League in England is the one league in which there are at least six clubs battling for the 4 Champions League slots available.
Solksjaer has been hired to see the club till the end of the season “while a search for a permanent manager continues and will be appointed in the summer”. This is where it is very important for Manchester United that the Norwegian makes more than a good fist of the job.
When looked in the cold light of day at the squads at Arsenal and Chelsea – the two clubs ahead of United in the race for a top 4 finish – then one can understand optimism at the prospect of catching and overhauling these two teams.
Without a shadow of doubt a club with David De Gea, Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic, Ander Herrera, Alexis Sanchez, Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial, Romelu Lukaku, Ashley Young, Marcus Rashford, Juan Mata – seasoned Premier League campaigners all of them – should comfortably be in the top 4 and be challenging for the title.
There are those who sniff at the importance of a club hiring a former player to be the manager and they will have many good reasons for this attitude, the truth is that it can be a great help. At Old Trafford now the players will look at the manager and know that what he is asking of them as Manchester United players is what he must have given in his time as a player at the football club.
As a manager now, Solksjaer understands the expectations of the fans worldwide. He will never start to sell the club or the players short and compare the club with the likes of Everton and Sevilla or “wanting to aspire to be like Man City”.
In the mid ‘80s Liverpool were at a crossroad when Joe Fagan decided he would rather retire than continue as manager after Heysel. The club appointed Kenny Dalglish their striker as player manager. He won the lot.
In the summer of 2008, Barcelona were at a crossroad after Frank Rijkaard had done his bit and they were searching for a new manager. They interviewed a Portuguese serial winner who was desperate to manage the club but decided that his temperament would not suit their club. Instead they went for their B team manager and one of their former players, Josep Guardiola.
Manchester United have been at these crossroads twice and have taken the wrong turn each time. Should Solksjaer get this team into the Top 4 and get past PSG in the Champions League 2nd round, it will be a monumentally foolish decision not to give him the job on a full time basis.
It will be some ride from now till the end of the season. It is the United way.