José Mourinho was right. It might have been hard for Manchester United fans to accept, but Ole Gunnar Solskjær can testify for the Portuguese.
The Special One claimed finishing as Premier League runners-up to Manchester City in 2018 was the biggest achievement of his glittering coaching career. The world laughed.
Here was José doing what he does best; setting the narrative to suit his own agenda, talking up the job he’d done at Old Trafford while coming under fire. Self-preservation at its finest.
Almost ten months on from his sacking, and with United languishing in 12th with just nine points from eight games, there’s now incontrovertible evidence to suggest Mourinho was right.
Initially, Solskjær made a mockery of his claims, winning eight games and going unbeaten in 11 matches in all competitions.
Even after Paris Saint-Germain inflicted the Norwegian’s first defeat, 2-0 in the Champions League last-16, United recovered to win four of their next five including that miraculous night in Paris where they scrambled a 3-1 win to progress to the quarter-finals.
What United’s hierarchy did next was tantamount to a drunken decision on a night out. Swept along by the crowd and the feel-good factor which had been restored at Old Trafford, they handed Solskjær a permanent contract as Manchester United’s head coach.
Since that fateful day, the Red Devils have won five of 21 matches. Were it not for the fact those games have been spread across multiple competitions and two seasons, it would be relegation form.
But even though the 46-year-old’s full-time appointment was a grave error of judgement, United must stand by Solskjær. For the job in hand, he is the perfect candidate.
If we overlook results, Solskjær has done an almost flawless job in every other aspect of the role. In fact, he’d arguably be a candidate for the still vacant director of football position if he doesn’t continue as United’s manager in the long run.
His first and arguably biggest triumph was repairing the relationship between the club and its supporters. Mourinho was a divisive figure long before he was finally put out of his misery on December 18. Solskjær immediately helped reconnect the fanbase and club with a barrage of positive soundbites, laying the nostalgia on thick and showing deference to ‘The Boss’, Sir Alex Ferguson.
While that relationship has become strained in recent weeks, he has held onto a higher approval rating than any other United boss could hope to have following a run of two wins in 13 Premier League games.
There is an appreciation that the problems run way deeper than the players on the field and any manager parachuted into Old Trafford would be doomed to underachieve – at best – if not fail completely.
The transfer market has been the other big triumph Solskjær can hang his hat on. Summer signings Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Harry Maguire and Daniel James did not come cheap, costing a combined £155million but all three tick the desired boxes. Young, exciting, laden with potential and British.
So far the trio have been Manchester United’s best performers this season and that should give Solskjær the leverage to demand further finance in January to fix at least some of the other gaping holes in his squad – at centre-forward, in central midfield, right-wing and left-back.
Incomings have to be balanced with outgoings and Solskjær has no loyalties to the players who have come before. Marouane Fellaini was the first to feel the ruthlessness of the Norwegian and has since been followed out the exit door by Chris Smalling, Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sánchez, Matteo Darmian and Antonio Valencia.
Nemanja Matić, Marcos Rojo, Fred, Ashley Young and Eric Bailly will all be vulnerable next summer – if not before – but a cold-blooded clear-out is exactly what United need. Solskjær has shown he is the man to do just that.
In their place, youngsters Scott McTominay, Mason Greenwood, Angel Gomes, Tahith Chong and Brandon Williams have been afforded first-team action they simply couldn’t have dreamed of under Mourinho and would be unlikely to get under another more established coach.
While Solskjær’s harking back to the good ol’ days of Fergie, the Treble and all that have reached comedic levels, the former Cardiff City boss is at least attempting to return United to some of their guiding principles. For doing so, he has been given a largely free ride in the press. In fact, it’s only in the last few weeks that the national papers have begun to put the Baby-faced Assassin under the microscope.
Regardless, Solskjær still has the unwavering support of the myriad of ex-Reds working the punditry circuit. Only this week Gary Neville, arguably the most high-profile of them all, threw his weight behind his former team-mate.
“The board need to hold their nerve,” Neville said on Super Sunday. “They’re responsible for this with poor recruitment, poor selection of managers, going with them and then pulling off them. They’ve also gone for different styles of managers, with Ole Gunnar Solskjær now taking the club in a completely different direction.
“If you change direction as a board every two years, investing £250m along the way in each manager, you’re going to have big problems,” Neville added.
The ship has already sailed on that one and it’s the exact situation United find themselves in having dispensed with David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Mourinho in the six years since Ferguson retired.
Rightly or wrongly, Solskjær is the path the Red Devils have chosen to go down and although the results have been disastrous, in all other aspects of the job the Norwegian is delivering the necessary for United.
When he finally relinquishes the manager’s job at Old Trafford it’s unlikely Solskjær’s tenure will be remembered fondly. But he will have done a lot of grunt work for his replacement, laying the platform for far greater success than he, hamstrung by the mess left by previous regimes, was ever able to dream of.