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How Ole Gunnar Solskjaer cleaned up Jose Mourinho’s mess to transform Manchester United into title contenders


Jose Mourinho knew his days at Old Trafford were numbered long before Liverpool put the final nail in the coffin of his Manchester United career in December 2018.

A trip to Anfield is the acid test of any Manchester United manager but Mourinho’s team selection for his final game in charge suggested he was already resigned to the sack. Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial were left on the bench in order to accomodate a back-five that included Diogo Dalot and Matteo Darmian.

In many ways the 3-1 defeat encapsulated Mourinho’s demise at the Theatre of Dreams, with a beleaguered and unambitious United side losing to a more dynamic, forward-thinking Liverpool. The defeat left United 19 points behind Jurgen Klopp’s side but the gap between the two was even larger off the pitch, with United lagging behind in every department.

Mourinho was sacked after defeat to Liverpool in December 2018 (Photo by Alex Dodd – CameraSport via Getty Images)

Mourinho’s problems with the dressing room had reached the point of no return and he took a final parting shot at his squad with his praise of Liverpool and Andy Robertson after the defeat on Merseyside.

‘They [Liverpool] are fast, they are intense, they are aggressive, they are physical, they are objective. They play 200 miles per hour with and without the ball. I am still tired just looking at Robertson. He makes 100-metre sprints every minute, absolutely incredible, and these are qualities,’

A Manchester United manager praising Liverpool after a defeat will never be a good look but it spoke volumes of Mourinho’s state of mind, with the Portuguese feeling like he had little, if anything, left to lose at the club.

It was the messy nature of Mourinho’s final months at Old Trafford that convinced Ed Woodward to turn to the more gentle management style of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who was installed as caretaker boss just over two years ago.

The Norwegian didn’t possess the track record to earn a job of that stature but United’s board felt Solskjaer’s return to the club would bring a feel-good feeling back to a disjointed, fractured dressing room.

In fact, given United’s intention to ‘conduct a thorough recruitment process for a new, full-time manager’, it’s arguable that Solskjaer’s sole remit as interim boss was to heal the dressing room and to calm tensions before a long-term replacement was put in place the following summer.

United have a three-point cushion at the top of the Premier League (Picture: Getty)

It is testament to Solskjaer’s managerial ability that he guided the club through that period and his appointment on a full-time basis was well-earned. However, question marks have persisted over the Norwegian’s ability to guide the club back to where they need to be and those outside doubts have plagued the Norwegian’s reign ever since, with unfair jibes that the former striker is a ‘PE teacher’ and unfit for the job.

Those accusations grew to a crescendo after United’s dismal start to this season’s Premier League campaign and many felt defeat at Goodison Park before the international break in early November would see Solskjaer lose his job.

Fast forward two months and United are top of the league, with a three-point lead at the summit ahead of Sunday’s trip to champions Liverpool.

Solskjaer has repeaired the damage done to United’s dressing room(Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

Few predicted United could even contest this season’s title race but Solskjaer deserves more praise than he has been getting for putting the club in their best position since Sir Alex Ferguson left Old Trafford as a league champion in 2013.

Tuesday’s 1-0 win at Burnley ensured United went top of of the league for the first time at this stage of the season for eight years and Solskjaer’s side displayed the type of mental strength and guile at Turf Moor that was lacking in the first half of the Norwegian’s tenure at Old Trafford.

The biggest accusation levelled at Solskjaer is that he lacks the coaching capacity to eke out the best from what is a talented United squad. But that is unfounded when you consider that only four of Tuesday’s starting XI – Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Bruno Fernandes and Edinson Cavani – were his own signings.

While Solskjaer has prioritised creating a better ‘environment’ at Old Trafford in which players can thrive, he’s worked relentlessly with members of the squad that looked to be on the way out at Old Trafford just two years ago.

Luke Shaw – so often derided by Mourinho – is playing the best football of his career at the club, while Marcus Rashford is on course to obliterate his personal best records this season. Mourinho wanted to sell Martial during his final summer at the club but the Frenchman scored 23 goals from a central position last term.

But it is Pogba that best embodies the under-the-radar work undertaken by Solskjaer. Many of the issues that peeved Mourinho still exist with Pogba: he lacks the tactical discipline to play in a two-man midfield, he’s publicly flirted with Real Madrid and his agent, Mino Raiola, has undermined the club by revealing his client wants to leave.

But unlike Mourinho, Solskjaer has taken a more tactful approach to dealing with Pogba and his methods are paying dividends. Instead of publicly airing his anger, Solskjaer has concentrated on ensuring Pogba is focused on the remainder of the season and has not allowed Raiola’s comments to cause a rift between the pair.

In the six weeks since Raiola claimed Pogba was ‘unhappy’ at the club, the midfielder has re-established himself as a starter and is playing his best football since the early weeks of Solskjaer’s reign as interim boss.

Solskjaer has slowly disposed of the individuals he felt would threaten the harmony of the dressing room and his ruthless decision to offload the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez and Chris Smalling doesn’t tally with the public perception that he’s a ‘yes man’ for the Glazer family. It took guts to sell Lukaku during his first summer at the club, knowing that the decision to rely on an untested Mason Greenwood could easily have backfired.

Beyond United’s league position, supporters are far more appreciative of Solskjaer’s brand of football compared to what was on offer under Mourinho, Louis van Gaal and David Moyes. United average 1.88 goals-per-game under Solskjaer, which is the club’s highest under any manager since Ferguson’s retirement. Solskjaer’s side have scored 3+ goals in 31.6% of matches under the Norwegian, which compares favourably to 21.5% under Mourinho, 25.2% under Van Gaal and 25.1% under Moyes.

United travel to Anfield with a three-point lead at the top (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

Since the signing of Bruno Fernandes 12 months ago, United have earned more points in the Premier League than any other side with the Red Devils averaging 2.14 points-per-game compared to second place Liverpool on 2.07 points-per-game.

Mourinho spent £26m on Henrikh Mkhitaryan during his first summer at Old Trafford but the Armenian was barely selected in the Premier League during his first six months at the club and he was used in an exchange deal for Alexis Sanchez after just 18 months with United. Mourinho wanted the benefits of an attacking midfielder but he too often prioritised industry over creativity, which resulted in Jesse Lingard being picked over Mkhitaryan.

In Fernandes, Solskjaer has found a player adept in both departments. The playmaker was a target for United in 2019 but Sporting valued the Portuguese midfielder at around £75m. Despite Solskjaer’s desperation to sign an attacking midfielder, the club refused to panic like they had done in years gone by and Fernandes arrived six months later in an initial £47m deal – which could rise to around £68m.

Fernandes embodies United’s new strategy in the transfer market (Picture: Getty)

Fernandes has netted 19 times in 31 league appearances for the club, while providing 14 assists. But beyond the midfielder’s impressive numbers, Fernandes has provided the type of leadership that was lacking under previous managers and he captained the side earlier this season in a 2-1 win against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.

Solskjaer is often mocked for talking about what constitutes being a ‘Manchester United player’ but his track record in the transfer market has been flawless in his two years at the club and the results are starting to show on the pitch. For the first time since Ferguson’s retirement, the club have in place a manager that can be trusted to spend the money available and Fernandes is already on his way to becoming one of the most astute captures of recent times.

Liverpool and Manchester City remain favourites to battle it out for the Premier League but to be in a position where United could have a say is progress for the club given where they were 18 months ago. The doubts over Solskjaer’s ability to take United back to the top will only end if and when the club are Premier League champions again. Win at Anfield on Sunday and Solskjaer could be forgiven for thinking he’s a step closer to putting the club back on their perch.


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