It may feel like he’s just walked through the door at Old Trafford, but club legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is now approaching almost two years at the helm, having taken over from Jose Mourinho back in December 2018.
Since then, the ‘Baby Faced Assassin’ has engineered something of a squad and mentality overhaul at Manchester United, with the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez and Marouane Fellaini early victims of the new Solskjaer regime.
While he may still have plenty to do to quieten the doubters and hush those lingering ‘PE teacher’ comments, a third-place finish last season, as well as three semi-finals, has gone a long way in proving that the club are finally heading in the right direction.
One area in which the Norwegian has excelled is restoring confidence to a group of players who had suffered miserably under both Louis Van Gaal and Mourinho, the young crop of talent perhaps the greatest beneficiaries of this new found faith.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the five players who’ve been most used since Solskjaer’s arrival…
Fred – 61 appearances
Having fended off neighbours Manchester City for the player’s signature, it’s fair to say that expectations were pretty high among the United fanbase when the Brazilian took to the Old Trafford turf. As has been the case for most of the club’s signings since the departure of David Gill and Sir Alex Ferguson, the former Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder struggled for any sort of form in his early United career – much to the joy of rival fans.
However, injuries to the likes of Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic at the start of last season opened the door for a midfield starting berth and to Fred’s credit he grasped the opportunity with both hands. The 27-year-old still has the tendency to squander possession needlessly – and he’s certainly no goalscorer – but his all-action, aggressive style of play has endeared him to his manager and United supporters.
With the arrival of Bruno Fernandes and Donny Van de Beek further increasing competition in the centre of the park, even making the matchday squad could potentially be a struggle for Fred. That being said, the fight for the holding midfield role is definitely still on, with himself, Matic and Scott McTominay all vying to solidify a starting spot.
Anthony Martial – 67 appearances
Perhaps the most frustrating United player since Nani, the Frenchman is finally looking like the real deal after a number of inconsistent seasons. Having signed on deadline day back in 2015 for a fee that could rise as high as £58 million, the youngster had perhaps the best start you could possibly have at the club, scoring against bitter rivals Liverpool on his debut – a goal that was made even better through some iconic Martin Tyler commentary.
That 2015/16 season would see United’s no.9 finish as the club’s top goalscorer, as Van Gaal’s men went on to lift the FA Cup. And then in walked Jose Mourinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
All the confidence of that debut campaign was lost as Martial saw both his shirt number and his starting spot in his preferred central role offered up to the more experienced Ibrahimovic, with the youngster ushered out onto the wing. There would be some delightful goals to follow, but inconsistent performances and a lack of game time made the Frenchman’s future at the club increasingly uncertain.
Thankfully, the arrival of Solskjaer brought with it a rejuvenated Martial, with the United boss favouring the former Monaco man ahead of big-money signing Romelu Lukaku. That decision has certainly been vindicated, the player netting 23 goals in all competitions last term to solidify his place at the club’s main man in attack.
David De Gea – 68 appearances
A lot has been said of the David De Gea’s current form, but let’s not forget that he’s arguably been the club’s most successful signing of the last decade – mind you there’s not exactly been many candidates. At a time when United were in turmoil the Spaniard was simply impenetrable and has racked up an impressive four Player of the Year awards since his arrival at the club in 2011.
Since Solskjaer’s arrival, however, things haven’t exactly gone to plan. The last 18 months or so has seen the former Atletico Madrid stopper make a litany of errors, including a couple of woeful blunders in United’s FA Cup semi-final defeat to Chelsea back in July. As a result, De Gea has not only come in for some stinging criticism from fans and pundits, but has also seen his starting spot threatened, with Dean Henderson determined to usurp United’s number one next season.
That task will, however, be easier said than done for young Henderson, with De Gea unlikely to offer up his starting berth willingly. Likewise, as this season has shown, Solskjaer appears to have continued faith in the 29-year-old despite calls for his head.
Marcus Rashford – 71 appearances
A star on the pitch and off it, Marcus Rashford has been a real shining light at the club since making his unforgettable debut back in 2016. A United fan and academy graduate, Rashford appears to suffer the same heartache in defeat and the same joy in victory like any Red Devils supporter.
What’s more, the 22-year-old is an incredibly gifted footballer and has struck up a seemingly telepathic partnership with fellow forward Martial. Despite having suffered an equally as uncertain spell as his strike partner under Mourinho, with Ole in the dugout the Englishman has flourished – notching 31 goals and 16 assists in all competitions since Solskjaer’s arrival.
The only slight concern of late has been his injury record, with a serious back injury suffered in January appearing to have cut short his season, before the madness of Covid-19 extended the 2019/20 campaign.
Victor Lindelof – 71 appearances
The ‘Ice Man’ has featured most in terms of both appearances and minutes under Solskjaer and has been the preferred choice alongside Harry Maguire this season. After arriving from Portuguese giants Benfica in 2017, Lindelof initially struggled to adjust to the rigours of the English top flight, yet has gone on to dispel a lot – but not all – of his doubters.
The 2019/20 season, in particular, was a success for United’s backline, as they conceded just 36 Premier League goals – only three more than runaway champions Liverpool. The arrival of both Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire has no doubt been major factors in making Solskjaer’s much more solid, although the calming presence of Lindelof should not be forgotten.
That being said, however, high profile mistakes and lapses in concentration, as witnessed most recently in United’s Europa League semi-final defeat to Sevilla, have perhaps illustrated the need for another centre-back signing – with another top-class central defender of the ilk of RB Leipzig’s Dayot Upamecano said to be on Solskjaer’s wanted list.