With their last league win coming in mid-September, it’s safe to say that Manchester United’s season has not gone according to plan with many backing them to be serious title contenders. After spending big on the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Raphaël Varane, it seemed as if manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær had the squad he needed to finally deliver United their first Premier League title since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. However, the worrying form of the club has led fans to question whether he is still the right manager.
After finishing a distant second to Manchester City, it became clear that this past summer would be critical to finally clinching a long chased title. Despite the influx of players brought in, it would ultimately fall on Ole to balance the team and create a game plan that would bring out the best in this very talented United side. Ole has been one of the most divisive managers in the league as he has at times been a great developer of talent and underprepared for the task of winning a title.
Ole took the reins at United in 2018 following the dismissal of José Mourinho after a rough first half of the season. Mourinho had failed at a task that Ole would now be tasked with, the task being returning this historic club to its glorious Fergie days.
Prior to taking the helm of this club, Ole had management spells at Cardiff City and Molde with mixed results. His time at Molde is the better regarded of the two, as he won the league title twice and developed some good talents. With Cardiff City in the Premier League in 2014, he had his first taste with management in a top league and ultimately failed with him failing to adapt to the Prem’s play, winning only 7 games.
It was definitely a surprise when he was selected to lead United as there were seemingly better options available in Massimiliano Allegri and Antonio Conte. Despite the lack of accolades in his coaching career, Ole is a United legend with fans having great memories of his 12 years at the club.
Before discussing the failures of Ole as a manager and weighing whether he is the correct leader for the club, it would be important to discuss the one area where he has done well. That area being the development of young players, continuing the long time United tradition of promoting youth players to the first team.
Over his three years as United coach, Ole has tied the single season record for giving academy players their debuts for the first team. This follows the model that has made United famous, as they have produced world class players and sides.
Mason Greenwood is one of the best examples of Ole’s trust in the academy, going from an academy starlet to a top Premier League starting forward. Greenwood made his debut in a Champions League knockout match against PSG and has gone from strength to strength. Under Ole, Greenwood has already scored 21 Premier League goals and made the English national team.
Not only has he brought up players, but he has furthered the development of younger players at the club with Marcus Rashford’s improvements being the best example. After stagnating under Mourinho, Rashford was given the reins of the offense and he rewarded that trust by scoring over 40 goals for the side in that time. Although this has led Rashford to play through injury and forced him to get surgery over the summer, keeping him out for most of this early season.
There are a lot of problems that have plagued Ole’s time at the club with two of the largest being lack of tactical philosophy and lack of integrating new signings into the team. These issues have been some of the most contentious points that fans have lobbed towards management.
One of the biggest issues for any manager and club is the choice of formation and playing philosophy. Not having a coherent philosophy, such as Pep’s ball movement or Klopp’s gegenpress, removes a team’s ability to have a truly familiar style of soccer. This also complicates team selection and formation, meaning that players aren’t being used properly in a way that helps their development.
Without a real tactical philosophy, Ole has stubbornly clung to one formation despite clear limitations. While his 4-2-3-1 formation is popular and can be properly done, Ole will shift players around position wise which doesn’t allow for the players to get used to their roles. He has also refused to adapt when his team is struggling, which allows for opponents to more easily counter the punches.
Ole’s inability to integrate signings in a timely fashion has hurt the development of not only the team, but the players. This is best seen in Donny van de Beek, who the club spent over 30 million dollars to acquire from Ajax. Despite being at the club for two seasons now, van de Beek has only made 20 appearances and regressed from the exciting playmaker at Ajax that lit up Real Madrid to a regressing bench player.
After three years of management and a Europa League final, it seems that Ole has reached the end of what he is capable of with this team. This doesn’t mean that his time was a failure, he deserves great praise for stabilizing the club and returning the club to some of their previous acclaim, in terms of their academy. However, his inexperience at the top level was always going to limit him, what may be the best option for him is to stay on as an assistant coach focusing on the development of younger players.
As of October, there is one big name left that would excite United and Premier League fans and that name is Antonio Conte. While he would bring that excitement of a big name, the current squad isn’t built for him with a lack of a strong back three and proper defensive midfielder. Furthermore, Conte requires his players to be defenders first which would clash with a team that has allowed the most goals in the top 6 of the table.
There may of course be some more exciting names over the coming months but this hire will likely help define this next stage of the club. Rather than being fixed on just the grandness of a name, United must find an experienced manager who is willing to focus on player development with the squad at hand.
These clouds over Ole’s management will remain until the club makes their decision on whether he is the right manager to deal with the players at his disposal. United would do well to figure this issue out now, as their next two opponents in Liverpool and Tottenham will prove decisive in their title challenge.
Featured Image: Peter Powell/PA