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Are United heading in the right direction with Ole at the wheel?

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

It’s been 21 months of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer steering the biggest football club in the world, Manchester United, from the managerial hotseat after taking over the reins from legendary Portuguese tactician Jose Mourinho.

Just 17 matches into the Norwegian’s tenure as caretaker coach, Solskjaer turned questionable attitudes from Paul Pogba among others and a toxic atmosphere in the dressing room into a winning machine, recording 14 victories, two draws and just one defeat.

The defeat was suffered in the last-16 clash of the UEFA Champions League when Paris Saint-Germain visited Old Trafford. A first-leg 2-0 deficit seemed too great to overcome but against the odds (5/1 to win on the night), United pulled off a 3-1 win and left the city of Paris painted red thanks to Marcus Rashford smashing in a 94th-minute penalty passed Gianluigi Buffon.

Everyone who supports the club were buzzing, none more so than club legend Rio Ferdinand who made a bold statement "Man United might not thank me, but get the contract out, put it on the table, let him sign it, let him write whatever numbers he wants to put on there - given what he's done since he's come in - and let him sign the contract and go…Ole's at the wheel, man - he's doing his thing. Man United are back!" he said.

Forty-four days later, the “Baby-faced assassin” was appointed as the club’s full-time manager on a three-year contract, but the honeymoon period was over and the Red Devils went through a dreadful slump over the next 12 matches, losing eight times, snatching two draws and winning just twice.

Doubts began creeping in even from the most hardcore supporters whether United acted too quickly by giving Solskjaer the permanent job with the likes of Mauricio Pochettino and Massimiliano Allegri available at the time. I’ll have to admit that I personally wanted the current Belgian national team coach Roberto Martinez to step in as I thought he was the perfect candidate.

Solskjaer’s capabilities as a coach had been exposed. It was clear to see that the Norwegian’s lack of experience at the top level was going to be an uphill task, unable to think on his feet and adapt to the football being played against his team. However, the bar had been set incredibly high under Sir Alex Ferguson’s 27-year tenure at Old Trafford and the weight of expectation has been there with every manager following his retirement.

No one can replace Ferguson but Solskjaer was given the opportunity to ensure the United DNA wasn’t lost and to bring a fresh dynamic into the dressing room that was falling apart under Mourinho’s counter-attacking football philosophy that doesn’t resonate well with the history of the club and supporters who had enough of playing unattractive football.

As a player, Solskjaer gave the Red Devils faithful many wonderful memories but the greatest ever moment was undoubtedly reaching the promised land by clinching the treble against Bayern Munich at Barcelona’s Camp Nou.

Only United fans will understand that feeling of pure joy that bursts through your chest. Teddy Sheringham equalises to cancel out Mario Basler’s first-half lead in injury time. Solskjaer takes on Ghanaian defender Samuel Kuffour and earns a corner in the 93rd minute.

Commentator Clive Tyldesley sounded like a supporter as he asked, “Can they score? They always score…It’s Beckham into Sheringham, and Solskjaer has won it.”

Complete scenes at the Nou Camp with the last kick of the game, United had won every major honour, a feat that hasn’t been replicated by another English club since. Peter Schmeichel’s last moments in a United shirt was doing 2-metre tall cart wheels before hearing the final whistle and riding off into the sunset.

That feeling that Solskjaer gave us as a player will never be erased from our memories and fans will always be behind him no matter what. That was surely the reasoning behind bringing in a club legend to stabilise the squad and get them moving in the right direction?

Coaches always take the fall when their team underperforms but problems at Old Trafford run deeper as the structures at the club are not as impressive compared to other clubs. In recent years, we have learned that a Director of Football is vital as well as someone to get transfer dealings done swiftly.

The Glazer family own the club and have limited knowledge when it comes to football and sadly, the club has been run as a business for far too long. Ed Woodward holds a position he can’t fulfil no matter how much money he can guarantee the club would make.

These factors set up Solskjaer more for failure rather than success in my opinion. Ajax Amsterdam have Marc Overmars and Edwin Van Der Sar in charge of their total football project that has continuously produced talented players and made the club money.

At Stamford Bridge, Frank Lampard is fully backed by Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich who has assembled Petr Cech (Technical Director) and Marina Granovskaia (Director of Football) to form a properly well-oiled machine that will reap the rewards of their hard work in the upcoming seasons.

At the Emirates, things look promising under Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta. Vinai Venkatesham has been appointed as Director of Football after Raul Sanllehi departed.

Brazilian Edu who was a member of the Invincibles team is the technical director and you feel a sense of inevitability that success will follow under the guidance of “real football men” that have played at the highest possible level and know exactly what it takes to become successful again.

Woodward, on the other hand, just hasn’t given any confidence with regards to the direction that the club is taking. United have been spending money to bring in talent every transfer window but the money hasn’t been spent wisely at all.  Solskjaer has roped in a few signings that have been more hits than misses in recent deals.

Last season, Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka were signed to bolster the defence with youth-team graduate Brandon Williams promoted to the first team. Daniel James was also added to the ranks from Championship outfit Swansea.

Although the two signings that made the most impact came in January 2020 with Odion Ighalo, a lifelong supporter of the club reminding everyone in the dressing room what an honour it is to play for such a massive club with great history.

The Portuguese “magnifico” Bruno Fernandes was a long-time target and took the levels up a few notches with brilliance oozing from everything he touches. His instant impact is very reminiscent of the cult hero Eric Cantona.

However, Mason Greenwood’s introduction to the first team has been a revelation with the talented striker featuring prominently during the second half of the campaign after being strongly recommended for greatness from Nicky Butt’s developmental structures at the Carrrington Training Complex.

Despite bringing in the players mentioned, United are still way off from challenging for the league title with obvious kinks in the armour. David De Gea has looked a shadow of himself while Dean Henderson was solid on-loan at Sheffield United. Henderson and De Gea will compete for the number one spot which will benefit both shot-stoppers.

Maguire and Victor Lindelof haven’t been convincing never mind the number of clean sheets they’ve kept together. There’s no balance between these two at the heart of the defence. There’s a lack of leadership or commanding presence and at times both don’t communicate well or simply do the basics which is the most worrying sign.

The right-footed 18-year-old Williams has shown a lot of fight and character while Luke Shaw just simply hasn’t lived up to his expectation after being touted to become one of the best full-backs in the league.

Williams should be giving competition to right-back Wan-Bissaka who is brilliant in defending one-on-one situations but is very awkward and uncomfortable in possession. A natural left-back is desperately needed to compete in both the UEFA Champions League and the Premier League.

Dutch midfielder Donny van de Beek is the only signing so far in this window with right-winger Jadon Sancho still the priority target and Sergio Reguilon being offered to United by Real Madrid this past weekend.

Sancho has been an ongoing saga much like Erling Haaland who was on the radar but ultimately signed for Borussia Dortmund. In my opinion, Harry Kane should be the priority target and a midfield destroyer who would help free up Fernandes and Pogba.

There is a massive clean up needed with lots of injury prone players on United’s books. Fresh blood has been added and given their chance but now established players need to enter the fray and take the team to the next level.

From the fans perspective everyone understands that Solskjaer probably isn’t the man to earn the title and if he goes through another dismal slump then a manager like Pochettino will be installed. The trigger will be pulled during this season in my opinion and Solskjaer would have done his fair share to help his beloved club get back to where they belong.

Pochettino did wonders with Kane promoting him from their youth set-up to become one of the best marksmen in the league. The Argentine coach, coupled with the natural finishing instincts of Greenwood, could turn out to be match made in heaven with the young English striker’s career possibly following the same trajectory as Kane.

My prediction is that Solskjaer will pass the baton to Pochettino during the course of this season and United will secure top four in the league standings. 

Follow us on Twitter @SBN_ZA or Facebook at Soccer Betting News and let us know your views on how you see Man United’s season panning out under the direction of Solskjaer.

Written by Bryan Naicker