Ole Gunnar Solskajer – The Ferguson Disciple


Sitting across the Premier League table are individuals who in the game of football have had unprecedented standards set against their names. You can’t talk about possession based football without making a mention of Pep Guardiola, Gegenpressing without echoing the name Jürgen Klopp or address compact defences without mentioning Thomas Tuchel. 

The known vectors, if you may. 

Sharing the same table is a man who mentions about not feeding his son if he earns a cheap foul in the game because to win fair is more important than winning. Fans of football are yet to figure out what demeanour is it that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer carries but there seems to be a sense of meticulous care with which he refers to his employers (football club) and its staff.  

The theme remains constant across any club in England when they sign a new manager. An individual who brings a certain style of football with which a set of players benefit and rest are cast apart. That is not the case at Old Trafford after the last managerial signing. Because the layout at United is a constant work in progress. 

A club devoid of any major European title since the final of Europa League in 2017 has now failed to win a domestic league title ever since Sir Alex Ferguson, the most reputed British Manager of all time departed in 2013. During the course of what feels like a horrible time for any United fan, the club saw divergent styles of play when they brought on David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho as successors to the reign left down by Sir Alex Ferguson. Of course each with their quirks. 

The club has earned a Champions League spot a total of four times out of eight post the retirement of the great British manager. Two of these spots came back to back under Solskjaer in his first two years as full time manager of the club with the other two split across the three managers.  

The one thing common in all these managers has been the disconnect the fans have absorbed from the club with more than just one aspect of the ball to blame. The league finishes have been far from satisfying considering the standards set earlier with the club exhibiting mid table performances on the pitch. Off the pitch, things haven’t exactly been rainbow. The executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward having been called out in public with a banner flying from a plane in one of the games reading “specialist in failure”. The club owners decided to partake in a power struggle with the federations, football organising authorities to create a League of their own all to increase their dividend cheques. 

The mood however saw a tilt when Solskjaer was brought in as an interim manager in December 2018 after a series of horrendous performances on pitch. Players were asked to wear suits again, the trajectory to a youth player at the Academy seems far more reliable and clear with a sense of integration to first team inevitable if playing well. 

A United team was never to be outrun again by the opposition indicating the levels of fitness involved were to take the next step. 

The phrase “This is Manchester United!” started looking firm again. 

The message from Old Trafford all this while has been consistent: they trust Solskjaer. They like what he is building and if the fans back him, the short term pain would be worth the long term gain. Of course, football fans who have a relatively short memory need to be reminded that the number of caveats at this United job are far from finished for Solskjaer to reinvent this club as a serial winner. But like the manager says, “a layer by layer” approach sums up not only the overall improvement of the United side but the method he uses to achieve it. 

No one would have fathomed that in his two years as the manager of the club, United under Solskjaer would be seven points ahead of Chelsea, twelve points ahead of Spurs and thirteen points ahead of Arsenal. Or that Solskjaer has beaten Guardiola on four separate instances, won thrice against Lampard, twice each against Mourinho and Pochettino, Tuchel, Ancelotti and Bielsa. 

Narratives change all the time in this game.

But what is it that Solskjaer has set foot out to achieve with this United squad? 

In his first set of acquisitions he attempted to steady things at the back from having conceded 54 goals in the 2018 campaign to 36 in 2019 by adding Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan Bissaka while loaning and eventually selling out the likes of Chris Smalling, Matteo Darmian and Ashley Young. While controversy ridden Paul Pogba despite all his off pitch managerial antics decided to continue despite his fall out with former manager José Mourinho, United decided to add further artillery to the attack which was left weakened after the timely exits of Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez. United bought the coveted Sporting Lisbon captain Bruno Fernandes accompanied a year later by Donny van de Beek. 

The latter is still to come good considering his first season at the club in 2020/21 but he comes from a setup which Ferguson preached off a lot in his time as the gaffer: the Ajax Academy. 

It is increasingly difficult for a fan or a pundit to gauge the ceiling of this United squad under the leadership of Solskjaer due to a string of contradictory performances. Most notably the win against Jurgen Klopp’s’ Premier League Winners to being humiliated at Bramall Lane. 

Solskjaer looks to be a firm believer of ‘Plan A’ for his side which thrives on open spaces and attacking in transitions but they continue to struggle without a Plan B in case of a team sitting back and defending deep. 

The Solskjaer-Ball is a hard to define but the “United Way” of playing attacking football with quality ridden wide players leaves the attack open to experiment with a sense of interchanging fluidity going about them. The trouble with United’s defending however comes from a clash of tactical vision and the player the manager uses to carry them. He wants his team to press from front while defending from the halfway line and space out the opposition but his commonly used back four is full of surprises and dropping out from delivering a lot many times.  

Amidst all of this what does stand out is Solskjaer’s approach to the ever evolving game via the lens of a coach more notably when in one of his press conferences he mentioned about having more than one defined style of play. “We want to have positive players expressing their talent while dominating games. So we’re building on it. We are working on it and players are developing.”

He is no longer an interim “baby faced assassin” or a PE teacher. 

He is Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. A manager of his own. 

From the unknown to a cult hero to a club legend. 

Maybe it is about time we treat him with the respect he deserves and not run narratives just because he is a Manchester United manager. 

Written by Dheeraj Pandey

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