Championship Play-Off Final: Michael Owen’s View
Four games played, four wins for Ole Gunnar Solskjær as interim manager of Manchester United. It has been a long time coming, but fans of the Red Devils are now seeing a more positive and offensive team that are willing to take the game to the opposition instead of waiting for a mistake to prey on.
While José Mourinho was the clear choice for when Louis van Gaal departed in 2016, it became apparent ever so quickly in his third season that the players had lost faith in the manager’s philosophy and thought processes. Manchester United’s players are not blameless in the fact that they were putting in terrible performances, but Mourinho’s systematic approach was simply not working.
Solskjær, immediately, came in to Carrington, Man United’s training headquarters, and lifted spirits around the team. Instead of constantly berating the players, he praised them and connected with them on an emotional level. There were no sly digs or backhanded compliments, it was all smiles and complimentary efforts of how good this team could become.
Ole’s at the wheel,
Tell me how good does it feel…
We’ve got Sanchez, Paul Pogba and Fred,
Marcus Rashford is Manc born and bred!
The greatest of English football,
We’ve won it all all!
— United Xtra (@utdxtra) January 3, 2019
The first four games under Solskjær have been kind to him – Cardiff, Huddersfield, Bournemouth and Newcastle – but there is no evidence to suggest that Mourinho would have walked away over the Christmas period without either falling out with more players or dropping points along the way. Or, most probably, both. After all, Manchester United had managed to lose to Huddersfield and Brighton earlier in the season under the Portuguese manager.
One of the most important changes that Solskjær has made to the team so far is their ability to express themselves on the pitch. It might be a cliché to suggest such a thing in 2019, but there is a massive difference in output when players actually enjoy the football they are instructed to play.
Look at Paul Pogba, for example. Under Mourinho, in 14 Premier League appearances this season, he managed to score three and assist the same amount. In Solskjær’s opening four games, the Frenchman has contributed to seven goals – four goals and three assists. Not only are his stats better already, it’s his overall performances that have looked sharper. Pogba is now beginning to show why he is so highly regarded.
Manchester United’s team chemistry is starting to blossom under the Norwegian’s influence with their front three constantly interchanging between one another. Under Mourinho, United’s play was so static and stagnant, with players regimented in the system and unable to find new angles to penetrate the opposition. That couldn’t be further from how Solskjær is allowing Man United to now play, in which he and the team are reaping the rewards from.
Paul Pogba is a joke. Don't ever doubt him. Just look at what he can do under a manager that allows him to play. Immense.
— Liam Canning (@LiamPaulCanning) December 30, 2018
The on-loan manager from Molde might have only had a couple of weeks to work with the players on the training ground, but one player’s attacking output has increased drastically since taking over. Marcus Rashford had struggled this season to put chances away and didn’t appear to progressing as well as he should have been. Even after a limited time working under Solskjær, the England international has looked far more confident in front of goal and has scored in all but one of the Norwegian’s opening four matches.
Rashford has been known over the past 12 months to panic in front of goal when put in a one-on-one situation with the goalkeeper, but his composure when scoring Manchester United’s second goal against Newcastle shows the positive impact that Solskjær is having on the 21-year-old. The Englishman’s finishing, spatial awareness and all-round link up play has improved tenfold in just a couple of weeks, while now looking like a player that has the confidence to lead Man United’s forward line.
🗣️ "He must have been watching @Cristiano when he was practising!" 😄
— Man United News (@ManUtdMEN) January 2, 2019
There are going to be times between now and the end of the season where Manchester United do drop points and do struggle. Their match against Wembley, against a high-flying Tottenham, will be a game in which United’s defence will be tested throughout. It might well be Solskjær’s first draw or loss as manager of his former club, but that does not mean his good work is being undone.
It will take time for this Manchester United to truly compete against the title challengers for the Premier League, but there is no doubting that Solskjær has made a huge positive impact in a short period of time. Whether he is rewarded with the job is another story in its entirety, but the Old Trafford faithful should be pleased with what they are seeing heading into the second half of the season.