As if to keep his critics dangling for his own twisted amusement, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has transformed Manchester United into Premier League contenders this season.
For all the talk regarding Liverpool’s title defense, a motivated Manchester City, the new-look Chelsea and a transformed Tottenham Hotspur, it’s the most successful club in the competition’s history that’s weathered a transitional storm to emerge atop a new wave of optimism.
So, why the unshakeable feeling that the Red Devils are still pretenders in the pursuit? A large portion of the doubt of course pertains to Solskjaer and the belief he’s still not ready to wrestle with more accomplished peers. But even the resources at Old Trafford aren’t sufficient enough to ‘luck’ one’s way to top spot, especially when the competition is so steep.
United’s eight-year wait for a league crown isn’t yet close to the three decades Liverpool endured prior to last term’s triumph. Solskjaer’s talents aren’t on a par with a club symbol like Sir Alex Ferguson—the last United boss to win the Premier League in 2013—but the profligacy of their immediate rivals mean management of that measure may not be required to break the duck.
Instead of Liverpool drawing level with their grand rivals on 20 top-flight titles, speculation has–albeit reluctantly and mired with doubt–turned to United possibly extending their lead once again as England’s most successful side. Sunday's tilt between the top two won't determine that outcome, but it will surely give us an indication as to which club should be favoured.
United's rise has failed to halt suggestions the club could be doing more under a different coach, one who, for example, might have advanced past the group stage of this season’s UEFA Champions League. It’s a fair point considering the standards United have come to expect in their 119 years, but one that overlooks the visible positives currently going in their favor.
Best of a Bad Bunch?
Just as the Premier League is considered by plenty of players as the ultimate battleground upon which they can test their abilities, the same can be assumed of those on the touchline.
With the addition of a fabled figure in Marcelo Bielsa, there’s grounds to argue this season has assembled the most impressive assortment of managerial talent in the division’s history. Household names like Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, Jurgen Klopp and Carlo Ancelotti have each won Champions League titles (and much more) in the past decade or so, while Roy Hodgson, Brendan Rodgers and Ralph Hasenhuttl are revered as masterminds in their own domains.
Solskjaer is still working with training wheels in comparison to some among that order, but he’s also not the tactical toddler others would make him out to be.
This is a man, after all, whose managerial career started at Old Trafford in 2007—the year he retired from playing—as coach of United’s reserves, with whom he won trophies in each of his three full seasons in charge. He followed that act by delivering back-to-back Norwegian league titles at former club Molde in 2011-12, no small achievement considering the club had never previously won a first division trophy and finished 11th the season prior to his arrival.
Reference to these feats is relevant, not because Solskjaer is dwarfed by certain peers or that his record requires padding after a failed nine-month spell in charge of Cardiff City. They illustrate United’s elected chief (initially hired on caretaker terms) has displayed the title-winning traits for which fans yearn and wasn’t as fortunate to be gifted the role as some would make out. At least not to the same extent as Frank Lampard and Mikel Arteta, who are facing their own challenges at Chelsea and Arsenal, respectively, having been handed those coveted positions despite boasting a single season of previous senior managerial experience between them.
The counter-argument is that ‘The Baby-Faced Assassin’ has had two years to size up his targets and execute. His trophy-less record at Old Trafford thus far reads more “plain vanilla” than “contract killer,” but United’s Premier League leadership suggests Solskjaer is delivering the more consistent product required to end their longest wait for a major trophy since the late 1980s.
Of course, it helps his case that no overwhelming favorite has fired ahead in the first half of the season, as nemeses Liverpool and City have in the past two campaigns. Nevertheless, the incumbent deserves his praise for the marked improvement United have shown compared to this same point last season, with Mourinho the only manager of the post-Ferguson era who can rival the 36 points Solskjaer has accrued after 17 games this term:
The one, sizeable elephant in the room that could support this theory is the coronavirus pandemic, which has had a cascading effect the impact of which we might never fully understand. Clubs have been forced to adapt to new protocols with limited reaction time and strained resources, with some coming out better for it and others noticeably below-par.
Among the usual “top four” of the Premier League—a term that’s become increasingly open to interpretation—United are the most improved over the past year, while Liverpool’s slowed output is to be expected following such a dominant first half of the 2019-20 season, via data analyst Simon Gleave:
Solskjaer is still a work in progress regarding tactics, though any modest manager may well put themselves in the same bracket given the pace at which modern soccer forces one to adapt. But the point is more true of the Norwegian, whose substitution choices are at times critiqued for good reason, as his inability to earn the sole point required from their final two Champions League group games (against Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig) underscored.
Thankfully for United, it’s the tools at the manager’s disposal that appear to show a more tangible improvement over time. Transfer funds are rarely scarce at Old Trafford, but rushed recruitment and poor planning around certain signings has seen other clubs benefit from their missteps too often in recent years (cut to Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez contributing to Inter Milan’s Serie A title push this season).
Most notable among their recent market successes is of course Bruno Fernandes, a name that’s become synonymous when any present-day United success is mentioned. The Portugal international—a $60 million recruit from Sporting CP in January 2020—enjoyed a meteoric first year in Manchester, becoming a favorite for both fans and his manager alike:
Fernandes, 26, has provided an impetus that gives fans hope not only in the present, but for years to come. The same can be said of 27-year-old captain Harry Maguire, who bulldozed past on and off-field distractions in 2020 to recapture the kind of form that earned him his $95 million transfer to the club in the first place:
It may seem like child’s play from the outside, but mashing so many talented professionals into a cohesive unit capable of fulfilling massive expectations is the challenge of a lifetime for Solskjaer.
And it’s not just the new faces contributing to the cause in a big way. Eric Bailly has retained the manager’s trust and is displaying his best United form to date thus far, while Luke Shaw looks determined to ensure summer signing Alex Telles doesn’t get a look-in on the left side of defense.
Solskjaer has even managed to mend Paul Pogba’s situation to the point where the Frenchman is not just a workable asset, but a born-again, integral part of the team, having gone 90 minutes in six of the club's last eight matches. It was his winner at Burnley that sent United to the top of the Premier League table for the first time this season, the kind of impact his employers would have hoped to see on a far more regular basis in recent years:
The manager’s handling of that dilemma, refusing to mimic predecessor Mourinho in publicly criticising his player, may save the club a small fortune in the short-term should the Frenchman exit this summer. Looking further ahead, it could even get a few more years of fealty out of World Cup-winner Pogba, who looks happier than ever to be part of a United team that looks more capable of winning games now as it has at any point in the past seven years.
It’s these kind of abstract improvements that can so often be overlooked when gauging success, the unforgiving guillotine upon which any manager is ultimately judged–as Slaven Bilic can attest. United have shown patience in their talisman-turned-tactician, who arrived in raw form but is gradually polishing his product to shine alongside a glittering garrison of managerial talent in England.
Easy as it would be to attribute United’s success so far this season to the underperformance of certain giants, the numbers tell the true tale: United are getting better the longer they work under a boss who has the squad’s trust.
Stability breeds success, after all, and on the back of the most chaotic year in living memory, United’s ship looks as steady as it has since Solskjaer’s former mentor was at the wheel. This Sunday will reveal if that stability means a Premier League trophy is a realistic hope this season.