Opinion: Solskjaer has aced the festive period

For the next few days, at least, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is sitting on top of the Premier League table, along with his Manchester United team.

And though the Norwegian stressed before the Burnley game that
“no-one remembers January league tables”
, United's positioning after 17 games of the 2020/21 Premier League season will earn the boss plenty of praise. And rightly so.
 
Because United are not there by accident, or by luck. Quite the contrary. The team had a pre-season that was shorter than the Glastonbury festival and, early on, were beaten by sides like Crystal Palace and Tottenham, who'd enjoyed much longer summer breaks.
 
When the Reds lost 3-2 to RB Leipzig and exited the Champions League in early December, the knives were out. Before us lay a daunting schedule of 10 games in 32 days over the December/January period – a sapping phase of every season, which has knocked the stuffing out of many a team in years gone by.

90 in 20: Burnley 0 United 1Video

But here United are, in mid-January, top of the pile. Having taken 29 points from the last 33 available. That would be an enviable run in any period of any football season, but in this compressed, COVID-19-affected campaign – given the pressure every Manchester United side comes under – it is hugely impressive.
 
And it has been managed, and managed expertly, by Solskjaer.
 
The 1-0 win over Burnley was a fitting way to end that marathon, month-long period crammed with games. At a ground renowned for the tough challenge its hosts give all opponents, Solskjaer got his team selection and rotation spot on, and underlined just why United are the form team in the league.
 
The Reds' matchwinner? Paul Pogba, who had been rested for the 1-0 win over Watford last weekend. Our other outstanding player? Nemanja Matic – limited to just 10 minutes or so against the Hornets. Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire were both omitted from the starting line-up for the cup game, too, and were near faultless against the Clarets.
 
It's a theme that has repeated itself again and again during the last few weeks. The manager and his staff have picked horses for courses and got it right at almost every turn.
On Sunday, it's likely that the midfield will change again: Solskjaer often prefers Fred and Scott McTominay as his midfield duo against sides that like to dominate possession (though Pogba's display in east Lancashire could surely ensure a place is found for him).
 
Against Leeds, Daniel James started to the surprise of many pundits, but the Wales international ran riot against Marcelo Bielsa's stylists. The end result? United 6 Leeds 2. Against Everton, Axel Tuanzebe came in at right-back to give Aaron Wan-Bissaka a well-earned rest, ahead of a run of difficult games. It worked perfectly once more: Everton 0 United 2. We could go on. 
 
Guessing United's team for each game has been a fiendishly difficult task in recent weeks – as those who regularly attempt our United Predictions challenge will attest! – but the meticulous planning of Ole and his staff has been rewarded.
 
Critics and supporters alike can twists themselves into knots after each and every game, after every performance, good or mediocre, but a manager cannot think like that. Thankfully, Solskjaer thinks long term.
Last season, he let several experienced first-team players go out on loan to make space for young talent. In the short term, that probably made his job harder – especially when Pogba, Martial and Rashford went down with lengthy injuries – but the boss felt it was the right decision for the club. It's the kind of broad, structural planning that supporters often miss, given the highs and lows of twice-weekly results, but such decisions can have a massive effect on the feel and culture around a club. They can also pay off handsomely further down the line.
 
His transfers have also been good: who better to start against Burnley's tough centre-half pairing Ben Mee and James Tarkowski than Edinson Cavani? The Uruguayan took some physical punishment, but bravely occupied his markers throughout and created space in front of the back four for Bruno Fernandes, Pogba et al, which ultimately helped United win the game. Elsewhere, Alex Telles's arrival has likely inspired Shaw to greater, more consistent heights.
 
The only blot on our festive schedule was the 2-0 Carabao Cup semi-final defeat to Manchester City, but even that was a marginal affair decided by two set-pieces. Plus Pep Guardiola's men had played just one game in the preceding 10 days, due to the postponement of their Premier League game with Everton.
 
But would Solskjaer have taken seven wins, two draws and just one defeat from that 10-game spell? He probably would, as would the millions of United fans who woke up buzzing on Wednesday morning.
Ole is a
“manager”
in the true sense of the word – he manages his squad, he manages expectations, he manages for the short term and has an eye on the long term. In other words, the future of the club he loves. His equilibrium is one of his best qualities: he's never too arrogant or cocksure after a victory, and never too doom-laden or emotional after a defeat. 
 
Fans and critics might be increasingly obsessed with systems, formations and
“patterns of play”
in the modern era – the age of the super-coach and footballing
“philosophies”
– but the game, and managing a club, is about so much more than those admittedly important facets. Look at the way Ole has handled United's squad – its different personalities, its different issues – and developed its collective mentality in recent months.
 
Supporters and the media might lose their heads in the build-up to Sunday's big match at Anfield – indeed, Gary Neville encouraged United fans to
“get carried away”
, given our struggles in recent years. But one man won't: Solskjaer. And that's why he's making such a good fist of steering the club forward.

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