Only a hard-headed cynic would deny that Manchester United have made progress since club legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer replaced fading star Jose Mourinho as the club’s manager in late 2018. He inherited a jaded, listless side from Mourinho. The squad was unbalanced, key players were getting older, and the side was going backwards. Under the Norwegian, they’ve taken small but consistent steps back towards the top. They haven’t won any trophies yet, but last season they finished second in the English Premier League and reached the final of UEFA’s Europa League. Those improvements are the reasons why Solskjaer has just been rewarded with a new three-year contract.
When a manager carries a club forward and signs a new long-term commitment to that club, the news is usually given a rapturous reception by fans. The response of Manchester United fans to the word of their manager’s new deal has been mostly warmly received, but there are still a small but significant number of dissenting voices. Those voices come from fans with long enough memories to remember the glory years of the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century. To them, Manchester United should be the biggest club in the world, win the Premier League more often than they don’t, and reach the later stages of the Champions League regularly. As grateful as they are to Solskjaer for turning the ship around, they don’t believe he’s the right coach to finish the job and lead them back to the top of football’s mountain.
The new contract has split United fans into two camps – those who believe that Solskjaer’s incremental progress will surely result in big trophies in the next one or two seasons, and those who think his lack of tactical nous at crucial moments will prevent them from getting there. His perceived tactical naivety is what some United fans and journalists blamed for the team’s loss to Villarreal in the Europa League final. Solskjaer sometimes doesn’t appear to have a plan B. There have been occasions when he’s seemed to wait too long to make crucial substitutions. Both of those traits were cruelly exposed in that final. The game went to penalties. If he’d been more adventurous during extra time and made attacking changes earlier on, that wouldn’t have had to happen. There’s a feeling among the naysayers that Solksjaer has built an outstanding squad, but he doesn’t know how to get the best out of it. Why, then, would United want to keep him?
The answer to that question might be that there’s a lack of better options. That’s a problem that exists all over the footballing world at the moment. Pep Guardiola is arguably the last truly great coach to emerge in European football. Nobody has broken through and achieved significant success since him. A lack of options is why Real Madrid found themselves going back to veteran coach Carlo Ancelotti for another stint at the Bernabeu earlier this summer. It’s why Chelsea was forced to appoint Thomas Tuchel, a man who’d already failed at Paris Saint Germain. PSG, in turn, appointed Mauricio Pochettino despite the Argentinian’s failure to win a single trophy during his time at Tottenham Hotspur. Last season, Pochettino not only failed to bring PSG their long-awaited Champions League trophy but didn’t even manage to win the French league. Despite that, he’s also been rewarded with a two-year contract extension. As much as the biggest clubs in the world would love to turn to better, younger coaches, there doesn’t appear to be anybody out there.
Even if there were someone out there, United have been burned by chopping and changing in the past. Every managerial change is like reloading and spinning again at an online slots website. You know there’s a chance of success when you hit ‘spin,’ but you know that you don’t have full control over when or if that success will arrive. Each time you hit that spin button and win nothing, your costs increase. If playing online slots was a reliable way to earn money, UK online slots websites wouldn’t exist. People would understand there was a winning formula, and they would exploit it to ensure that online slots companies never make a profit. No such formula exists, and no managerial change is safe. Sometimes, if the person in charge is doing an acceptable job, the risks of replacing them aren’t worth it.
We don’t have to go back far in United’s history to see examples of this in action. David Moyes was never the right man to replace Sir Alex Ferguson, but firing him after less than a season looked hasty. Louis van Gaal was probably a spent force by the time he took the Manchester United job, but he was fired days after winning the FA Cup. That could have been the start of a comeback for both him and the team, but United’s hierarchy felt that the chance to appoint Jose Mourinho was one they couldn’t miss. Mourinho wasn’t a good fit either. His best days were behind him, and he’d left Chelsea for the second time in near-disgrace. He gave Manchester United fans what he gave Chelsea, Spurs, and Real Madrid fans – a toxic, unhappy dressing room and dull, defensive football. By comparison, Solskjaer has been a tonic. He’s not universally loved, but he’s mostly popular and results under him are mostly popular. Right now, considering the current landscape of football, that’s enough.
With a new contract signed, Solskjaer has job security. He also has a better squad than he had at the start of last season. The evergreen Edinson Cavani is now fully bedded in at Old Trafford and will get the benefit of a full pre-season before he takes to the pitch. Mason Greenwood is improving steadily. Jadon Sancho is a dynamic addition to the squad and adds even more attacking threat to a team that was already blessed in that area. If the rumours that centre-back Raphael Varane is set to join the club from Real Madrid, it means captain Harry Maguire will finally have a settled partner at the back after two years of alternating between Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly, neither of whom are good enough. This could be Solskjaer’s year, and a lot of critics will be eating humble pie come the end of it if so.