Ole Gunnar Solskjaer appeased disgruntled Manchester United fans at the end of last season with the guarantee that change was coming. Jack Wilkinson examines whether he has been able to deliver on that promise…
It was the result that signalled the start of Manchester United’s dismal demise at the end of last season.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s sensational start – 10 wins and a draw from his first 11 games – nothing more than a distant memory by the time Theo Walcott rattled in Everton’s fourth goal to complete a humiliating defeat on Merseyside.
Gary Neville labelled the performance at Goodison Park rancid and, after apologising to the travelling United fans unfortunate enough to be there in person, Solskjaer promised change – wholesale change.
It was a steely statement of intent straight out of the Sir Alex Ferguson textbook and, five months on, the manner in which Solskjaer has gone about transforming United suggests it’s a promise he will honour.
Before the ink had even dried on his first Manchester United contract in 1986, Ferguson was already barking out orders. Then-chairman Martin Edwards was informed of the Scot’s wish to sign as many as eight players, and Viv Anderson, Brian McClair and Steve Bruce were signed within 18 months of his arrival.
That decisiveness in the transfer market appears to have rubbed off on Solskjaer.
Players deemed no longer fit for purpose have been shown the door by any means necessary. Whether it be the sales of Romelu Lukaku and Matteo Darmian, the departures of Ander Herrera and Antonio Valencia, or the financing and pushing through of loan deals for Alexis Sanchez and Chris Smalling – there’s a ruthless edge to United’s dealings.
One thing Solskjaer has yet to master, though, is the ability Ferguson had time and time again throughout his reign at Old Trafford to adapt his playing style to suit new personnel and remain competitive.
Work in progress
After the humbling defeat at Everton, Solskjaer set out the fundamental principle he wants to define his time at United. I want my team to be the hardest working team in the league, he said. That is what we were under Sir Alex.
While that addresses Solskjaer’s initial concerns over his squad’s work-ethic, it’s hard to see how that translates into the visible shift in playing style United fans have been yearning for.
United’s first four Premier League games this season, and their final four last season after the defeat at Everton, give very little indication as to what he will settle on, other than the fact that it is very much still a work in progress.
On the one hand, United have enjoyed more possession, won more duels, conceded fewer goals, and run an average of 106.9km per game – all positive signs that Solskjaer’s philosophy is being implemented.
On the other, an alarming drop in both interceptions and winning the ball high up the pitch suggest it’s going to take time for the squad to successfully juggle their manager’s demands.
A precious commodity
And that, ultimately, is what will determine Solskjaer’s chances of success – time. Will he be given the time to see out the project he has started?
Ferguson famously got time, but it’s a precious commodity in the modern game. Results have rightfully clouded judgement on United’s start to the season, but progress, however slim, is being made on the pitch to go with the much-needed dressing room reset Solskjaer promised.
It does take time, Neville said. Not just to actually get people in the dressing room all facing the same direction, but to get the quality in that’s needed.
It took Pep Guardiola 12 months, three transfer windows. It’s taken Jurgen Klopp three or four years to affect the culture at Liverpool and get a team fully in what he would say is his style, his culture and what he wants to do.
This is going to be a long game at Old Trafford. To play the long game, Solskjaer is going to need the support from up above. He’s going to need really strong leadership over the next two or three seasons to be able to have those four or five transfer windows that he needs.
United are on their fourth clean slate in the seven years that have passed since Ferguson’s retirement. After the outcome of the previous three under David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho, it’s one that’s working but must be given time to restore the club to where they feel they belong.
(c) Sky Sports 2019: Is Ole Gunnar Solskjaer delivering on his Man Utd promise?