Of all the winners from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first five games in charge of Manchester United, the biggest is probably Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Having arrived with the acrid fug of failure at Cardiff City still clinging heavily to his puffer jacket and his main achievements as Molde manager the best part of a decade behind him, Solskjaer’s appointment as caretaker boss was generally greeted with a shrug. Five games and five wins later, he is the saviour of Old Trafford. Already, in the most predictable turn of events since Jose Mourinho’s third-season meltdown, there is an interest group forming around the idea that Solskjaer should be given the job permanently.
Whether or not Solskjaer can convince the United hierarchy to take an even bigger gamble on him, he looks set to emerge from his experience as caretaker manager with his reputation significantly enhanced.
Solskjaer is not the only winner from his tenure so far, in fairness, with much of the club revitalised after the gloomy Macbeth-esque soliloquising of Mourinho’s last few months as manager.
Here are three winners from Solskjaer’s five five games, followed by three losers for good measure.
During a bleak autumn period in which his relationship with his manager plumbed new depths, Paul Pogba came to represent everything that was wrong with Mourinho’s reign. Mutual acrimony, egotism, excess, wastefulness: for many, the Carrington graduate turned £89m reacquisition from Juventus was the epitome of a club culture turned sour.
Though it may be mainly by the grace of not being Jose Mourinho, Solskjaer seems to have shaken Pogba out of the funk which engulfed him earlier in the season. More than anything, Pogba has been liberated from Mourinho’s constant browbeating and regained some of the confidence and drive which once made him one of the most sought-after footballers in the world.
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Having scored four goals in four appearances under Solskjaer, Pogba has been one of the main beneficiaries of the team being reoriented towards all-out attack. “I can definitely, definitely, see the Paul I used to know,” Jesse Lingard said of Pogba after United’s victory against Bournemouth in December. “I have seen him playing through the ranks and he is back to that player, the player we know.”
Speaking of Lingard, he has also profited from Solskjaer’s offensive revamp. Having scored twice in Solskjaer’s first game against former club Cardiff – this in a statement 5-1 win – it seems that, alongside Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, he has been entrusted with the task of re-energising United’s forward line.
While, at 26, Lingard is no longer a youngster per se, Martial and Rashford still belong in that category and Solskjaer settling on a front three has allowed them to shine. Where Mourinho often tweaked his formation towards the end and – as the man who advocated his signing – continued to make space for Alexis Sanchez long after his form had nosedived, Solskjaer has thrown off those constraints and largely left Sanchez out to the benefit of his younger counterparts.
Solskjaer has also given first-team minutes to teenage academy graduates Angel Gomes and Tahith Chong. “As Sir Matt [Busby] once said, ‘If they’re good enough they’re old enough’ and we’re built on that tradition,” Solskjaer said not long after his appointment, suggesting there could be more opportunities to come.
Just as he seems to have revitalised the flagging morale of United’s players, so too has Solskjaer proved hugely popular with fans. After months and months of Mourinho in full miserabilist mode – bemoaning the Old Trafford atmosphere, lacerating his own players and demolishing water bottles on the touchline like a mentalist dad at a kids’ five-a-side match – Solskjaer’s breezy optimism has felt like the equivalent of a giant, supportive cuddle.
As well as improving the mood at the club, Solskjaer has also presided over five wins with 16 goals scored and only three against. For comparison, Mourinho’s last five games resulted in one win, two defeats and two draws with 10 goals scored and the same number conceded. It’s little wonder fans prefer Solskjaer, nevermind the feelgood factor from his playing days.
And now, we move on to losers. First up, Romelu Lukaku. Where Lingard, Martial and Rashford seem to be Solskjaer’s trusted deputies up front, Lukaku has had more trouble convincing his new coach he deserves a starting spot. Despite scoring in all three of his appearances under Solskjaer, Lukaku has netted two of those from the bench and the third against struggling Reading in the FA Cup.
That said, Lukaku hasn’t scored in three consecutive games since early September and there are tentative signs that his form and confidence – both of which gradually ebbed away under Mourinho – are returning. He hasn’t got the game time he would like so far under Solskjaer, but things could still come right.
For Alexis Sanchez, meanwhile, the road to recovery at United seems ever longer. Signed with much pomp and fanfare last January and paid the best part of £500,000 a week, Sanchez’s contribution so far has amounted to four goals in 32 appearances. He has scored once this season, with the near-total collapse of his form vaguely baffling for anyone who watched him at Arsenal.
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Having made a single start under Solskjaer against Reading, Sanchez appears to have been marginalised in the quest to brighten things up at Old Trafford. Given his reputation for surly individualism, he is hardly the perfect man to spearhead Solskjaer’s cheerful revolution at Old Trafford.
Just as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is probably the biggest winner of his time in charge, the biggest loser is surely Jose Mourinho.
Having expended so much of his energy defending his record as Manchester United manager in the months before his sacking and deflecting blame onto those around him, Mourinho’s relentless negativity now stands in stark contrast to the straightforward fun being had under the man who has succeeded him. For all the pop psychology and the sense he was playing an ever-more convoluted game of 3D chess with himself, Mourinho has been made to look like a man hugely overcomplicating things to the point of intense, counterproductive self-involvement.
While Solskjaer may never achieve what Mourinho has in his managerial career, he at least realises that football is meant to be enjoyable. That is something Mourinho seems to have lost sight of, which perhaps explains why he has experienced so much misery and discord over the last few years.
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