By Danny Wyn Griffith
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United side have seen a remarkable turnaround in fortunes. Their latest win at Burnley made it a year unbeaten on the road with 12 wins out of 15. To top it all off, Paul Pogba’s winning goal at Turf Moor completed an incredible 33-point swing in United’s favour that now sees them sitting three-points clear of Liverpool.
Who thought such a turnaround was possible this time last year? Actually, who thought Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United would have been anywhere near the top when beaten 6-1 at home by Tottenham Hotspur earlier in the campaign.
I for one certainly had my doubts.
In my last piece in October 2019, I argued that Solskjaer required more time and patience to make Manchester United a success. I stressed that whilst he might not end up being the long-term solution, he deserved more than the one transfer window as permanent manager to cure this squad of the ills left over by previous managers.
Up to that point his three summer signings (Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James) had been positive on the whole, and that more along those lines over the following two windows might mean a half-decent squad in the making.
Since then, Ole oversaw a surge in form once the Premier League got back underway after the Covid-related pause. His free-flowing Manchester United side surged up the table, breaking at pace through Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, whilst bolstered with the Cantona-esque signing of the Portuguese magnifico, Bruno Fernandes.
They fell at the semi-final stage of the League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Europa League. Promising signs for some, yet a worrying sign of a lack of killer instinct to others.
Ahead of this season the squad was bolstered with the arrival of Ajax’s Donny van de Beek, Porto’s Alex Telles and veteran Uruguayan Edinson Cavani – all of which were league title winners with their previous clubs. Although the off-season will forever be remembered for their failed pursuit of Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho.
As the season’s start approached, clouds hung around from that failed pursuit of Sancho whilst the lack of pre-season preparation caused angst for the coaching team.
This saw United lose their opener at home to Crystal Palace and fail to win any of their opening three league matches at Old Trafford. Only their fine away form ensured they stayed above the relegation zone.
Whilst I wasn’t panicking at this point given the early stage with which the season found itself, there were definitely worrying signs the off-season transfer struggles were once again hampering their on-field performance. Nevertheless, Ole managed to ride the wave of criticism as he already had many times in his still-young Manchester United managerial career.
When his side faced Paris Saint-Germain knowing that a point would ensure qualification, the wheels came loose once again. An initially impressive return to Champions League football soon turned on its head as they were beaten at home by Paris Saint-Germain and then at RB Leipzig.
It was during the home defeat to Paris Saint-Germain that my doubts over Ole’s ability to truly turn the United ship around reached maximum levels.
I found his decision to keep Fred on the pitch, despite a first-half yellow card that may well have been a red, to be blind at best. It felt obvious to all that his next challenge, be it in the 46th or 70th minute (as actually happened), would result in a second yellow card. Yet Solskjaer kept Fred on and later saw him sent-off in a decision that proved the catalyst to United falling into the Europa League once again.
The following week saw me rant at anyone willing or unwilling to hear my ramblings – with my barber definitely getting the brunt end of it. Unfortunately, I had decided once and for all that Solskjaer wasn’t the answer, and whilst the thought of him taking United back to the top was akin to the perfect fairy-tale, like most fairy-tales it never had a chance of happening.
Now I sit here having gladly eaten my words of late. Emphatically he has since turned the United ship around again to see them rock up this coming weekend at Anfield with Jurgen Klopp’s reigning champions now playing catch-up.
Football fans are renowned for being fickle – especially when it comes to their own team and I’m certainly no different. Just as that decision to keep Fred on against PSG was infuriating, his half-time substitutions at Southampton and then West Ham saw Manchester United turn both matches around and provide crucial wins.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer certainly deserves enormous credit for the turnaround and change in squad character since his arrival. His decisions and signings look shrewd on the whole, and whilst the squad isn’t perfect by any stretch, it’s definitely the best and most energetic since Sir Alex Ferguson departed.
His tenure so far has seen highs followed by all too predictable lows, with no sign of the consistency required to truly challenge the top sides. Now it seems as though something is clicking. It’s unlike anything experienced under his predecessors David Moyes, Louis van Gaal or Jose Mourinho.
Whilst this Sunday’s trip to Anfield won’t ultimately decide where the title is heading, it will certainly show whether Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United are closer to finding their perch once again. Another Manchester United away victory would send shivers through Merseyside and start cementing fears that the Stretford End is arising.
P.S. The return of fans to grounds can’t come quick enough, hence the featured image.
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