Ole Gunnar Solskjaer holds a Man Utd scarf after being appointed as permanent manager on 28 March 2019

Reflections on Solskjaer's first year

Saturday 28 March 2020 08:13

It feels like a long time since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was appointed permanent first-team manager of Manchester United, on 28 March 2019.

Heck, it even feels an age since the last game at Old Trafford, when Scott McTominay sent us soaring into the stratosphere with that masterful, late coup de grace against Manchester City. But, in reality, it's been just less than three weeks.
Let's be honest: the coronavirus pandemic has uprooted us all, radically altering the way we think about much of modern life. Football is nothing but a memory at this point, though we dream daily of its reawakening.
But humans measure things in minutes, hours, days, months and years and, inevitably, Solskjaer reaching this mark today makes the current moment feel like an appropriate time to reflect and take stock of how well the Norwegian has done.
So, what's the verdict?
Ole returned to the club in December 2018, initially as caretaker manager.
For the fan, the last few matches are always at the forefront of the mind. And, fairly or not, players and managers are usually defined by the results they've captured in recent weeks.
Encouragingly for us, United's final game before the enforced break – a 5-0 dismantling of LASK in a behind-closed doors contest –  made it 11 games undefeated for Ole, comprising eight wins and three draws, plus 29 goals and nine clean sheets.
There was a great sense of momentum, as evidenced by that Manchester derby win at Old Trafford, and the connection between players and fans that undoubtedly carried us through those last few minutes.
But to judge Solskjaer's reign as manager, you need to step back and take a broader glance. 
There have been massive changes in a very short space of time and, in my opinion, Ole and his assistants deserve massive credit. 
Firstly, for being brave enough to make some bold decisions. And, secondly, for managing to keep things driving forward amid the kind of teething problems that will inevitably occur when you attempt to reshape a club.
Look back at match reports or photos from a United game in 2018/19 before Ole took over, and you'll notice that the starting XI has drastically changed, in not much more than 15 months.
Lots of players have left, a few have arrived, and Academy youngsters have been welcomed into the first-team fold.
Solskjaer would admit that results have been inconsistent. But sitting here now, reflecting on this stalled 2019/20 season, United are on the brink of the top four, in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, and half-way to the same stage of the UEFA Europa League. The Reds also reached the semi-finals of the Carabao Cup.
And that's with top scorer Marcus Rashford ruled out since January, Paul Pogba absent since December, and key personnel such as Anthony Martial and Scott McTominay having missed sizeable chunks of the campaign.
Solskjaer has had to do without key players such as top scorer Marcus Rashford for large parts of the season.
More importantly, Solskjaer has delivered much of what fans have been clamouring for in the years since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.
A focus on youth? Check. Academy stars Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams have both broken into the first team successfully, while Marcus Rashford and Scott McTominay have matured. There is an undoubted United 'DNA' at the core of the side. On that note, we're also the youngest team in the Premier League.
A more recognisable playing style has returned – namely quick, counter-attacking football, characterised by energy, aggression and graft. With plenty of games still left, United have 83 goals in all competitions, and are well on course to beat the club's best tally for a season in the post-Ferguson era (105 in 2016/17).
Fans wanted to see more leaders. Harry Maguire has grown in stature since adopting the captain's armband, while Rashford, McTominay and January signing Bruno Fernandes have also emerged as key influences. There is a humility and togetherness that has, at times, been absent in recent years.
Academy players like Brandon Williams and Mason Greenwood have become regulars in 2019/20.
One often-heard cry when managers come under scrutiny is: "Which players has he improved?"
Where to start? Players like Fred, Luke Shaw and Rashford have looked reborn. Anthony Martial is on course to record his most prolific season at the club. Nemanja Matic is back to his best, while all five of the Ole-era signings (James, Wan-Bissaka, Maguire, Fernandes and Ighalo) have seamlessly flourished. The aforementioned Williams and Greenwood have progressed rapidly.
Many of the players in question have publicly credited the one-to-one work done by the coaching staff, and the encouraging environment fostered under Solskjaer.
Players like Luke Shaw and Fred have found their best form under the Norwegian.
Ole will admit that results have not been consistent over the full length of his tenure but, realistically, how could that be otherwise, given the much-needed changes made to the squad?
The most encouraging thing is that United are growing stronger and more confident as time passes under the current managerial regime – regardless of setbacks. And already, Solskjaer has proved repeatedly that he can win the biggest of matches in consistent fashion.
Already he has won twice at the Etihad, three times at Stamford Bridge, away to Tottenham,  at Arsenal, away to PSG. Excitingly, the arrival of Fernandes appears to be assisting us in beating the most pragmatic of opponents at Old Trafford too.

It's been far from perfect, yes, and Solskjaer, Mike Phelan and co will readily admit that.

But, as a fan, it's difficult to argue against the idea that progress has been made, especially if you factor in the difficult decisions that have been made to let certain players go, and the clear attempt to change the culture of the club in what is a very short space of time.

Manchester United are steadily improving, and doing it in a way that is consistent with the ideas and beliefs that has made the club successful in the past.

Old Trafford knows this and has been unwavering in its support of the manager. Time, patience and some luck are still required, but Solskjaer is on track.

The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.

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