Slow progress for Solskjaer after first year in charge of Manchester United

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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer Manchester United 2019-20
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English record champions end the decade a long way from their fabled perch and there have been only a few encouraging signs that things will improve

Manchester United’s trip to Arsenal is a chance to take stock of the club’s progress this year under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

The club travel for a New Year’s Day fixture in north London with their opponents now headed up by Mikel Arteta. His appointment brings with it some of the same goodwill that Solskjaer carries with him - but it has been far from easy for the former striker at Old Trafford. 

There are clearly differences in the situations between Solskjaer and Arteta and the latter’s time under Pep Guardiola marks him out as a manager with potential. There is insufficient evidence to suggest Arteta is the right or wrong choice for Arsenal, while after a year Solskjaer has demonstrated both his limitations and his promise.

His greatest achievement is that he still retains the support of the dressing room, no small feat with a squad of players which has seen off one manager after another. If anything, the exuberant spirit that came with United's initial resurgence under Solskjaer has been rekindled. Recently, there have been indications that lesser teams are more vulnerable to United’s attack after a frustrating period of results against the league's smaller clubs.

Admittedly, doubts persist. United might be close to the Champions League spots but they are barely clear of mid-table. A tight chasing pack suggests that United are on the fringes of Premier League mediocrity. But there is no guarantee that they are not also firmly embedded in it.

If there is to be a tactical improvement, it must come with the club’s existing players proving that Solskjaer is not just an encouraging figurehead, but a coach who can do more than just assemble a starting XI.

“Starting XI” is the pertinent phrase, too, because there remain justified doubts that his substitutions change matches.

Mason Greenwood’s excellence means that if you need a goal, put him on the pitch. The doubts creep in when Andreas Pereira is seen as a superior option to James Garner, or if Jesse Lingard continues to play ahead of Angel Gomes.

Angel Gomes Manchester United 2019-20

Solskjaer is somewhat trapped; he can't risk damaging the confidence of young players he eventually wants to use but is punished for using senior players he knows for certain are not capable. A more aggressive manager - more confident in his ability to not only play but improve youngsters - might approach a game with more swagger.

It is well established that United exploit the spaces granted to them by better sides but struggle to break down teams who are ready to launch their own counter-attacks. Solskjaer should be able to figure this conundrum out with the players at his disposal.

Going into the opening of the transfer window, there is a chance for executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward to paper over the cracks, and to give an as-yet unproven manager the chance to learn on the job. Signing, for example, a James Maddison or a Christian Eriksen would obviate the need for Solskjaer to find his own solutions from Juan Mata and Lingard.

Against Arsenal, Solskjaer will have no new players to use. He may have Paul Pogba back, and, just as it was for Jose Mourinho, finding a way to get the best out of him could be the difference between success and failure.

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Solskjaer’s approach has probably been the best one at hand. He has been unrelentingly positive and fulsome in his praise of the World Cup winner. Instead of subbing him or dropping him pointedly, he has put him at the centre of the team whenever possible.

When these two sides met earlier this season, Pogba featured for the last time before his lengthy injury problems kicked in. If he were to return at his best then a top-four finish would seem more likely. However, there is no guarantee that Pogba will even be at the club by the end of the transfer window.

Whether Solskjaer can engender the much-needed application from Pogba for the rest of the season is far from clear. After a year in charge it is a testament to the intractable nature of the problems facing him that he has made only negligible headway to overcoming his biggest obstacle.