A criticism that is often levelled at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is that his Manchester United team do not have a consistent and distinguishable style of play. We intuitively know how Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool set up and approach each and every game; what their strengths are and how those strengths are utilised. The same can be said of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and, perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, Chelsea under Tuchel.
Manchester United though, even just shy of three years into the Norwegian’s tenure, remain something of an enigma; a coat of many colours.
They typically excel on the counter but are not a counter-attacking side. They aspire to the swashbuckling, attacking mandate exemplified by their predecessors in the Nineties, but arguably struggle to break through a low block more than any of their peers.
Who precisely are they and what is their M.O? It is difficult to say when systems feel tailored to the opposition whenever genuine quality is encountered, while at other times United appear to overly rely on individual magic to get them through.
This lack of identity is especially damning given that Solskjaer placed such importance on the club reclaiming theirs when he took charge. “It’s about finding players with the Man United identity and DNA,” he said in 2019 regarding recruitment, and for ‘DNA’ read ‘The United Way’, a philosophy that defined Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United across the Nineties and 2000s and places a great emphasis on attacking, adventurous football and playing without fear. Crucially, it is also a process that entrusts individuals to solve problems on the pitch, not stymied by over-instruction.
That latter directive is definitely worth lingering on for a moment, as it fundamentally lies at the heart of why Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will always be a manager of moments rather than a coach who brings success back to Old Trafford.
Let’s say both Liverpool and United are having off days when faced with inferior fare. The former are individually permitted to express themselves creatively of course and are actively encouraged to do so when on-song, but when encountering difficulty, Mo Salah and co have a framework to fall back on; a set-list of set plays, all meticulously drilled into each player so they are instinctively attuned to the movement of team-mates. On days such as these, it is the Liverpool model that wears opponents down and gains the three points.
As for Manchester United under Solskjaer though, they have no such model, and if that was less of a prerequisite back in Ferguson’s era it absolutely is now, with every team, great and mediocre, so tactically savvy.
“What is this team’s identity?” Holland’s assistant coach and Daley’s dad, Danny Blind asked recently. “Solskjaer has no tactical plan. They have the quality and most of the time they get the results, but it is never a team win.”
Against Aston Villa at home, prior to the international break, the Reds enjoyed 60% possession throughout and accrued 28 shots, but only four were on target. Frankly, they could still be playing that game now and the score-line would remain 0-1.
Acknowledging this substantial shortcoming goes an awful long way in explaining United’s propensity to do well but never quite well enough during Solskjaer’s lengthy – by today’s standards – time in charge. Because brilliant players such as Fernandes, Rashford, and now Ronaldo, will usually see you right, but not always. And it is the doing it always which wins you titles and trophies.
It explains their rousing comebacks – 14 all told since the start of 2020/21 – and their exhilarating victory in Paris during the former super-sub’s inaugural season at the helm. But it also explains the 31 league points picked up last term from a possible 57 at Old Trafford. The 9-0 trouncing of Southampton followed immediately by a frustrating draw. The compendium of semi-final defeats. The so close but no cigar ethos that has come to consume this present-day United collective.
“It’s up to them to use their imagination and creativity and just enjoy playing for this club,” Solskjaer said upon his appointment when asked what instructions he had planned for his players, and it seems unimaginable that Klopp or Guardiola or Tuchel would ever be so glib on such a fundamental issue, even if attempting to deflect on the inquiry.
That is not to say that the 48-year-old has done a bad job overall. Moyes certainly made a bad fist of it, as did Van Gaal. Solskjaer meanwhile, in the final analysis, and later in hindsight, will be viewed as a valuable and necessary interim.
His recruitment has largely been excellent, with only Donny Van de Beek an odd exception that pales to the procurement of Bruno Fernandes when United were in desperate need of inspiration.
Two long-standing problem positions were positively addressed in the signings of Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Meanwhile, this summer, United could rightfully claim to have ‘won’ the transfer window by bringing in Raphael Varane, Jadon Sancho and Cristiano Ronaldo.
There is also the not-so-small matter of presiding over a record 29 games unbeaten on the road while we have unquestionably witnessed a quantum improvement from certain players, namely Luke Shaw and Mason Greenwood, the latter benefitting hugely from personal one-to-one sessions with the arch assassin.
Of most importance, he has got the club back on its feet again after being brought to its knees by a succession of unsuitable managers. Arriving as the anti-Mourinho, Solskjaer has unselfishly jettisoned players he may have had use for but were of no use to the club in the long-term and has injected belief and positivity back into every nook and cranny of the institution. That might be demeaned as ‘cheerleading’ by the cynics. But a cheerleader was exactly what Manchester United was so crying out for post-Mourinho.
But now they have no further need of mere stimulation. Having finished third and second in the Premier League across the last two seasons, United now require a structure and nuanced, elite leadership that Solskjaer sadly cannot provide.
They have, in simplistic terms, outgrown their manager. They have become a giant with restricted movement from wearing medium-sized clothing.