As Manchester United manager in a helter-skelter, pandemic-affected season the challenge for Ole Gunnar Solskjær has been to perform a quasi-renaissance act. Human resources expert, player counsellor, social media abuse fighter and the man charged with moving the team on from last season’s third position and triple semi-final disappointment: all are roles he has had to play and have been carried off impressively.
The prime test comes between the white lines. Here, the Norwegian has steered United to second in the Premier League and plotted a route to Wednesday’s season-defining finale: the Europa League final against Villarreal at the Gdansk Stadium when the club can end a four-year trophy drought. These achievements are linked to the manager’s ability to fight fires during a trying campaign.
From pre-season to December Solskjær’s was a particularly turbulent ride. August featured his captain, Harry Maguire, locked up in a Greek cell for two nights. In September, Mason Greenwood was sent home by Gareth Southgate after the teenager and Manchester City’s Phil Foden broke Covid protocols by inviting two women to a room at England’s hotel in Iceland. October had Solskjær’s “worst day” as a manager when Tottenham humiliated United 6-1 at Old Trafford. November ended with Edinson Cavani posting “gracias negrito” on Instagram whichdrew a three-match ban and £100,000 fine. Then in December, United crashed out of the Champions League group stage after failing to gain the requisite draw at RB Leipzig.
Factor in a 10-week saga of a chase for Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho that ended in failure on summer transfer deadline day and the constant brickbats hurled at Solskjær, and United’s presence in this final and second-place Premier League finish with the closest points-deficit to the champions (12) since Alex Ferguson retired are testament to Solskjær’s mix of cute management and disarming serenity.
Solskjær is the great pupil of the feisty Ferguson. Maguire’s time in custody, then the guilty verdict on charges of aggravated assault, resisting arrest and attempted bribery after a night out in Mykonos (he has denied wrongdoing and appealed) were handled in characteristically smooth manner. The England centre-back retained the captaincy, with the manager billing him as “an absolute top human being”. The reward was Maguire’s finest season.
Greenwood being sent home in disgrace? Solskjær offered his take on the Ferguson hairdryer, fiercely defending his prodigy while choosing to upbraid Southgate by revealing he had (virtually) begged the England manager not to give the teenager a first call-up because a breather was required following last year’s breakthrough term and truncated pre-season.
When results bombed Solskjær refused to panic. After defeats in United’s opening two home games – by Crystal Palace and Spurs – came the early Champions League exit. This was preceded by a loss at Istanbul Basaksehir caused by farcical defending, but the manager took responsibility and guided United to lead the Premier League in January for a first time since 2012-13 under Ferguson.
Cavani’s Instagram indiscretion was also handled as note-perfectly by Solskjær as a question about Paul Pogba and Amad Diallo parading a Palestine flag at the end of last week’s 1-1 draw with Fulham. Regarding Cavani he diplomatically suggested education for players of all foreign cultures coming into the league; on Pogba-Diallo the quite reasonable idea was floated that everyone should be respected for any varying opinion.
Then there has been Solskjær’s grace in the face of constant sniping in a social media age that allows everyone a platform to be abusive (on occasion) about a manager branded a “PE teacher” or “mini-Ferguson”. Solskjær has never addressed this but knows the noise is out there, but he keeps his silence and focuses on the team.
This United-first ethos was in evidence when he negotiated another potential minefield with a light touch. On the eve of the final Champions League group match at Leipzig, Pogba’s agent, Mino Raiola, said the midfielder should leave in the January window.
While inwardly (surely) cursing Raiola – and perhaps not overjoyed at his player, too – Solskjær extolled the hard work Pogba put in and refused to make him persona non grata. His man-management again yielded results. In the month Raiola insisted Pogba should leave it was the player’s late goal at Turf Moor that made United leaders and his winner two matches later at Fulham that kept them there.
All of the above is done in the pursuit of trophies. Now, Unai Emery’s side stand between Solskjær winning a first, precious piece of silverware for United in his second full season. Beat Villarreal and many of the naysayers will be silenced. And the side’s evolution will be placed on a fast track that the 48-year-old can cite when pleading with the Glazers that this should be the summer when the owners green-light a ruthless pursuit of one of his prime targets, Sancho or Tottenham’s Harry Kane, until they are landed.
If the final is lost then Solskjær is bound to face scrutiny, as is normal for his position. But though this would be a bitter disappointment he is already ahead of last season. What he builds is clear. What has to happen next as obvious.
In 2021-22, United have to seriously challenge City (and allcomers) for a first championship in nine years. If this is a tough ask – City, for one, will surely only become better – it feels folly to write off Solskjær. He tends to respond in precisely the best way when required.