Thirteen games, ten wins, two draws and only one defeat. One point more than Liverpool (who have played one extra game), two more than leaders Manchester City, eight more than Arsenal and ten more than Tottenham Hotspur.
Applying a crude extrapolation, had Solskjær been in charge since the beginning of the season, United might have found themselves in a title race by this juncture. It is no surprise, then, that the Norwegian has been awarded a three-year contract to continue his fine work at Old Trafford.
But it would be a gross misjudgment on United’s part to believe that Solskjær’s appointment cures the ills of the last six years, a period post-Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement that has seen them cycle through three permanent managers before Solskjær and spend hundreds of millions in the transfer market with no semblance of a title challenge to show for it.
Solskjær getting the manager’s job signifies many positives for United: a re-establishing of a connection to the club’s glorious past; a re-prioritising of front-foot football and faith in an organic methodology that extends to young players from the academy being given opportunities.
But Solskjær’s appointment doesn’t not – cannot – fix so much of what continues to hold United back. For that, they must not lose sight of the need for restructure above Solskjær, to seek a director of football to work alongside the manager and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward to devise and implement a transfer strategy, to oversee the building and balancing of the squad.
United are one of only five clubs in the Premier League not to have a director of football or equivalent. And it’s beginning to show.
The Red Devils haven’t been afraid to go big to secure their top transfer targets since Ferguson’s departure – £649.3million has been spent on 25 first-team signings – but there has been a clear absence of a thought-out plan behind their player recruitment.
Star names such as Paul Pogba, Ángel Di María and Alexis Sánchez have been signed, garnering plenty of attention and prized online engagement. But there has long been a suspicion that the club’s biggest recent purchases have been made at the behest of Woodward, bewitched by the prospect of a Real Madrid-esque Galácticos transfer policy to maintain marketability.
Beyond the big names, there has been wave after wave of the managers’ own choices, who are then either discarded or marginalised by the next man in the hot seat; from Marouane Fellaini under David Moyes, to Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind under Louis van Gaal, and now José Mourinho signings Eric Bailly and Fred rarely start.
An indictment of United’s slapdash recruitment, of the 16 first-team players signed between the summers of 2014 and 2016, six – Di María, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovć – who cost a combined £143.7million, lasted no more than a season and a half with the club before being let go or moved on. It’s a situation the under-performing Sánchez could soon replicate.
And United have hardly shown better forethought with their current playing staff. It is a recurring issue that valuable members of the squad find themselves entering the final years of their contract before the prospect of a renewal is raised, meaning the club time and again flirt with the possibility of allowing prized assets to leave for free.
Ander Herrera, one of the top performers since Solskjær’s arrival, is the latest to be the subject of serious interest from elsewhere, with Paris Saint-Germain reportedly trying to sign the midfield when his contract runs out at the end of the current season.
Juan Mata’s contract also expires this summer. And even though United hold a unilateral extension option on David de Gea‘s dwindling deal, that will only secure the Spaniard’s services up until the end of next season, when Marcus Rashford, Nemanja Matić and Bailly’s contracts are also set to end.
In dragging United back into the top-four race and securing a place in the last eight of the Champions League, all while giving opportunities the club’s youngsters and getting the best out of the likes Pogba and Rashford, Solskjær has shown what can be achieved with a positive, proactive approach and big-picture thinking.
It’s vital that United find a director of football who can get the club running as smoothly off the field as Solskjær has on it.