Date published: Saturday 14th August 2021 7:32 – Will Ford
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has led Manchester United through the first stage of Gary Neville’s prophesied rebuild brilliantly; now it’s time for the second.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer claimed back in March that trophies were an “ego thing” for some managers, not so cryptically hinting at Jose Mourinho’s naked desire for silverware of any shape or form. It was taken by some as indication of a lack of ambition, at odds with the great trophy-winning history of Manchester United. The ‘progress’ Solskjaer spoke of was sniffed at as semi-final defeat followed semi-final defeat.
But they were the comments of a man in the middle of a rebuild, aware of the joy a Europa League or League Cup victory would bring the fans, but focussed on the end goal that would bring so much more. Solskjaer now claims that “nothing is beyond these boys” this season – he’s guided them through the first stage of the rebuild brilliantly.
Gary Neville spoke of this two-stage plan back in May 2019, a few weeks after Solskjaer had taken permanent charge. “I’ve never not liked a Manchester United side,” he said, with his former team as far away from winning the Premier League title as they had ever been. “Forget it,” he added.
2 years ago in May. I always come back to this video to remind myself just how tragic the situation was.
Pathetic on and off the pitch.
We need trophies yh, but I definitely did not think we’d have a squad we love, with good signings and attacking football within 2 years.
UTFR 🇾🇪 pic.twitter.com/C52U0nSXvP
— g string (@gstringutd) August 4, 2021
Manchester City and Liverpool were playing some of the best football this country has ever seen and United looked directionless on and off the pitch. The club was in need of a “cleanse”.
Since then, Matt Judge, John Murtough and Darren Fletcher have been appointed. Judge works on negotiating contracts under Director of Football Murtough, who is chief of transfers, while Technical Director Fletcher oversees the development of the players and coaches – the football side. And as Neville prophesied, the order of those clearly defined roles has granted peace of mind to Solskjaer; it has given him the chance to build an environment in which he can “develop a team that the fans like again, that we can respect professionally”.
United’s unparalleled success in the Premier League era had created an atmosphere of impatience, with the club and fans becoming so accustomed to consistently challenging for the top prizes that the time promised to managers post-Sir Alex Ferguson was always borrowed. And there has been great pressure – from the media and some portions of the fanbase – during Solskjaer’s tenure to pull the trigger once again and bring in a more established name.
They deserve great credit for sticking with Solskjaer. His calm demeanour has been just the tonic for a club that was extraordinarily unsettled when he arrived. This was always going to be a process; they weren’t set up like other clubs – Chelsea, for example – to have a conveyor belt of managers to come in, win and move on. It would have taken another one-in-a-million manager like Ferguson to control the ins and outs of every aspect to win titles with the club in that state. Football had moved on and United were left behind.
But now they have caught up. Solskjaer has got them playing football as close to Fergie ball as we’ve seen since he left and watching United is no longer a chore. Transfer business remains a tad painful, but smart. Two of the three major problem areas in the team have been rectified this summer, with Jadon Sancho filling a gaping hole on the right and Raphael Varane joining Harry Maguire to form what looks on paper like a formidable centre-back partnership. Fred and Scott McTominay as the two foremost holding midfielders remains the worry.
“At that point, United can go for the title,” soothsayer Neville said, correctly predicting they would reach “that point” (this point) after two or three years. None of us reckon they will, but they are now capable. There could be any number of reasons why the title remains out of reach – the strength of their opponents being one and Solskjaer’s ability to lead them in this final step another – but it’s worth remembering just how low that Manchester United nadir was two years ago and the huge role the manager has played in putting the club in a position where they can win the title.
They may not win it with him, but they would likely be nowhere near without.