While most every Manchester United supporter you know will scream at you about what a sneaky good manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær is, and certainly never in a tone or volume that will make you think they’re trying to convince themselves as much as they are you, the urge for all of us who don’t support them is to let them have their fun. The prevailing theory for those of us on the outside is that the more that feeling of “Ole is underappreciated!” pervades through the fans and the club, the less likely they are to go get an established manager of top teams. Especially with someone like Antonio Conte, serial title winner that he is, floating out there at the moment. There’s always someone floating out there, of course, one that we all know is a borderline lock to take all the talent at Man United — as mishmashed as it might be — and make it genuinely title-worthy. But as long as Ole is there, it feels like United have something of a ceiling on what they can do, and the rest of us can be happy.
So as annoying as it is to watch Crisitano Ronaldo score yet another undeserved injury time winner yesterday, and it is infuriating, you can’t help but smile a little inside as it’s likely to keep Solskjær in the job just a little longer. Which seems to be his main skill.
Would a draw or loss to Villareal have gotten Solskjær fired? No, not on its own. One or no points through two Champions League games would have raised the temperature though. Especially on the heels of a loss to Aston Villa at home the previous Saturday. While they could argue they deserved a point against Villa, and should have gotten one with a last-minute penalty that Bruno Feranandes sent to a ring of Saturn, they could make no such argument yesterday. Villareal were far superior and should have been up multiple goals before Ronaldo did what he always does (that, and dodge rape accusations, obviously).
This is what Solskjær has done for just about three seasons now. He arrived at the perfect time for anyone to arrive, and that’s right after José Mourinho was punted out the door in December of 2018. It’s no wonder that every player then played like an elephant was removed from their shoulders, because it basically was, given the pure misery of Mourinho’s time with United. There was no fear of being bus-tossed in the press immediately after a game, or being benched for funsies, or any of the other bullshit Mourinho would engage in. It’s little wonder that United won eight in a row and 10 of 11 as soon as Ole showed up, but look at the teams they beat in that run: Cardiff, Huddersfield, Bournemouth, Newcastle, Reading, Brighton, Fulham. That’s timing! It also didn’t hurt that he had Bruno Fernandes bestowed upon him a month after taking the job, though he could easily argue he gave the Portuguese the freedom Mourinho never would have. Which would be correct.
In Europe, Solskjær and United caught PSG when Neymar was injured in the second leg and a very generous ref to pull off the shock win. They would go on to get murdered by Barcelona, back when that was a thing that could still happen, United would only win two of their last 12 games to finish out that season, but given that he wasn’t Mourinho and the glow from the initial run, he was given the job full-time (which might have had something to do with working cheaper than a name manager would, but really, who am I to say?).
To open the 2019-2020 season, United won only two of their first nine games in the Premier League. They were definitively midtable, and looked it. Solskjær looked out of his depth, vultures circling, rumors swirling, mass hysteria, the whole thing. Come December, they beat Tottenham and Man City back-to-back, and then wouldn’t lose in any competition from mid-January until the pandemic shutdown in March. They closed out the return to action in that summer and benefitted from Leicester City falling on their face during the restart to claim a Champions League place. Solskjær had escaped again.
Last season already being weird and condensed and behind closed doors only got weirder when Chelsea had to change managers halfway through and every central defender for Liverpool had a leg fall off. There simply wasn’t anyone else to finish second, so United did. That didn’t stop Solskjær from crashing out of the Champions League at the group stage, which he made up for with a run to the Europa League Final. Which he then lost, thanks to David De Gea chasing butterflies instead of penalties in failing to stop all 11 Villareal shots in the shootout.
And here we are again. To watch United is to watch one of the biggest collections of attacking talent around, but no specific plan for how to use it. It’s Fernandes or Ronaldo or Rashford shooting from everywhere and hoping for rebounds or bounces. Or lacing crosses into the box and hoping for a mess that falls to someone’s foot, as it did yesterday. Or some generous penalty award, which they always get. Or that Pogba or Fernandes will just conjure something.
And because those two are so good, especially Fernandes, they usually do. Keep enough talent on the field long enough, and they’ll generally figure out something. And they keep figuring out just enough just in time to keep Solskjær in the job.
And maybe that’s Ole’s skill. It is part of the job to get your players to play for you, whether they like you or not. And United do fight, even if it’s not in any particular direction a lot of the time. They don’t give in. Maybe he’s easy on them in training. Maybe they really like him. Maybe the memories of Mourinho are still just that fresh for a lot of the squad. The only player he seems to have tangled with is Pogba, and that’s kind of Pogba’s thing. Maybe keeping this level of skill motivated counts for more than we appreciate, and should give it the same focus we do tactics and formations and whatever else.
It’s also a question if the owners, the Glazers, care that much. As long as there’s Champions League games and the fans aren’t, y’know, invading the stadium looking for them, maybe that’s enough. And Solskjær provides that for them.
And it’s enough for us on the outside, with United lingering on the periphery of trophies and contention without ever really looking like they’ll break through. So everyone wins. It’s a tough balance. A total collapse would see a more accomplished and gifted manager installed, and then United could live up to their reputation and history. Enough bounces and breaks, and maybe Solskjær could break through himself. For right now, everyone’s where they need to be. Just no one make any sudden moves.