Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is a Manchester United legend. ‘That’ goal in the 1999 Champions League final confirmed his place in club folklore and his association with a successful Sir Alex Ferguson side got him his current job as manager. The opportunity to ingrain himself further with the fans has been presented and if he does turn the fortunes of a floundering institution around, a statue at Old Trafford could be in the works. It is a humungous task that he has been entrusted with.
All through that initial honeymoon period following his arrival though, doubts persisted about his suitability for the job over the long haul. Cardiff had been relegated from the Premier League on his watch and with due respect to Molde, the Norwegian league does not really prepare one for the rigours in England’s top flight. Most worryingly, he has harped on about the Manchester United Way since day one without providing observers with any clues about what that way might be with the sides he has put out over the past few months.
He is referring to Fergie’s sides but Manchester United dominated English football for close to two decades under his stewardship and the characteristics of those teams varied. The 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 shape with flying wingers comes to mind the most, and Ferguson certainly used that system the most during his time there. Surely, Ole does not want to re-introduce it at a time when most top teams have moved away from what is considered an out-of-vogue model, even though Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona have used it in the last two seasons.
When Ferguson did use other systems, especially to improve performances outside England, he struggled. Between 1999 and 2007, United won only one knock-out tie in Europe, and it can be argued that Manchester United under-performed on the continent throughout his tenure. The defeats to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in the 2009 and 2011 finals typified his tactical struggles against more technical systems.
With Guardiola bringing his principles to English shores and others following suit, one hopes that Ole doesn’t find tactical inspiration in Ferguson. Football has evolved since the Scotsman retired and if the United Way refers to the strong-willed mindset of his players, that may be difficult to replicate too in a generation far removed from that time. In an attempt to motivate his side ahead of the Manchester derby, Solskjaer took his players to United’s old training ground, the Cliff. It did not have the desired effect. A winning mentality can still be brought about in the squad, but not through the ways of the past and certainly not with this current crop of players.
Past glories are never a good place to start when the attempt is to build something from scratch. As Jurgen Klopp stated in his first press conference as the Liverpool boss, history cannot be carried in a back-pack every day. Ole and United seem to have fallen into that trap. Mike Phelan’s confirmation as assistant manager on a three-year contract is another in a series of missteps since the departure of Jose Mourinho.
Manchester United needs a strong figure to wipe the slate clean and start the process over from scratch. That person should ideally be a technical or sporting director well versed in the ways of modern football who will define a playing philosophy. If it is going to be Solskjaer however, he would do well to look forward and stamp his personality on the club. The odds would still be on him failing, but at least he would not be placing all his trust on a vague, mythical way no one seems to have any idea about.