With a third-place finish in the Premier League to secure Champions League football for the next season and a run until the Europa League semi-finals, it’s fair to say that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has done a fairly good job in his first full season as Manchester United manager.
However, to say it was all smooth sailing for the Norwegian manager would be disingenuous at best. Solskjaer’s first full season as United’s permanent boss was anything but straightforward and was more like a rollercoaster ride from start to finish.
After a 4-0 victory over Chelsea on the opening day of the 2019/20 Premier League season, optimism grew among United fans but that would be short-lived as the Reds went on a three-match winless run that saw them take just two points from the nine available.
A difficult start
A win against Leicester City in their fifth league game of the season brought United some momentary respite but two loses and a draw from their next three matches highlighted their inability to break down teams that sat deep and the inconsistent nature of the squad.
The pattern of United beating the so-called bigger sides in the Premier League while failing to overcome sides towards the bottom half of the table continued till January. The pressure on Solskjaer reached the boiling point when United came out on the wrong end of a 2-0 defeat against Burnley.
The voices calling for Solskjaer’s sacking grew louder following the Burnley defeat with United six points adrift of the top four and 14 points behind third-placed Leicester after 24 matches into the season. The feeling around the club at the time was the Norwegian was another loss away from being relieved off his duties.
Little did the dissenting voices at the time know that the Burnley loss would be United’s last defeat in the league for the season and key to their revival was the acquisition of Portuguese playmaker Bruno Fernandes.
Bruno Fernandes inspires a revival
Desperate to add to their depleted midfield options, United paid a hefty sum for Fernandes but the galvanizing effect that he had on the rest of the squad proved to be well worth the investment. With Fernandes in the team, United looked a completely different side from the one we had grown accustomed to watching in the first half of the season.
The Red Devils inspired by Fernandes proceeded to go on an 11-game unbeaten run before the pandemic halted football for over two months. At the time, cautious optimism returned to the club even though the break thwarted United’s momentum.
When football did return, all eyes were back on Solskjaer and United with several pundits still uncertain if the Reds could make the top four. After a 1-1 draw with Tottenham Hotspur in their first game back after lockdown, Solskjaer’s men won their next four matches by a three-goal margin and became the first-ever team in the Premier League to do so.
4 - Manchester United are the first side in @premierleague history to win four consecutive games by a margin of 3+ goals, with the last team to do so in the English top-flight being Liverpool in October 1987. Powerhouse. pic.twitter.com/5B2wmxEngS— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) July 9, 2020
Key to this run of results were Fernandes, Anthony Martial and teenage sensation Mason Greenwood. While Fernandes continued his pre-lockdown form, Martial, who is enjoying his best season till date under the influence of Solskjaer, scored United’s first hat-trick in the league since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson.
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The Norwegian’s coaching, in fact, is perhaps best reflected in Martial, who has scored as many goals under the tutelage of the current United manager in the 2019-20 campaign as he did over his past two seasons. Martial’s potential was never up for debate, however, no manger has got more out of the Frenchman than Solskjaer.
Another player who has forced everybody to sit up and take notice, especially after the lockdown was Greenwood. The 18-year-old returned after lockdown looking stronger and scored four goals in three matches to cut the gap to the top four.
A nervous win over Crystal Place sandwiched by draws against Southampton and West Ham United meant that United went into the final week of Premier League action in the top four. That said, they had to overcome Leicester away from home on the final day of the campaign to secure Champions League football and that was never going to be easy.
Even though they had wiped away Leicester’s 14-point lead following their defeat to Burnley in January, a loss on the final day would undo everything. Fortunately for United, that wasn’t going to be the case as they came away from the King Power Stadium with three points and Champions League football.
By doing so, Solskjaer at the very least has ensured that he’ll be at the helm at Old Trafford next season. However, doubts about his long-term future with the Reds still continue as critics point at their points tally of 66 being the same as they managed in the 2018-19 season to imply a lack of progress.
Trophies next season a must
Be that as it may, what the points table doesn’t show you is what Solskjaer has done off the pitch. Not only has he got rid off high-profile and underperforming individuals like Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez after deeming them surplus to requirement, the United gaffer has also brought in a host of young and hungry youth team prospects into the first-team squad.
A lack of hunger and desire was a problem in the squad at the time of his arrival but not anymore. The Norwegian himself is under no illusions when it comes to the task at hand that he has at Old Trafford. He had even earlier said to expect some short-term pain for long-term gain.
And with patience as well as time, Solskjaer may well fulfil his promise of returning United to the top. But he’ll need to be wary that many pundits and fans still remain unconvinced with him as manager despite him getting the better of Pep Guardiola thrice, Premier League Manager of the Year-nominated Frank Lampard thrice and former manager Jose Mourinho once last season.
So, while the narratives that develop around him is not something that is in his control and three semi-final defeats over the course of the season don't paint a bright picture, Solskjaer can take heart from United's second-highest league finish in the post-Fergie era and hope to kick on in the next campaign after what was a see-saw season which saw him endure incredible highs and devastating lows.
Feature image courtesy: AFP / Martin Meissner