When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer became Manchester United’s caretaker-manager on December 19, he was given six months to make a case for the right to be Jose Mourinho’s permanent successor.
A little over halfway into the temporary job, Solskjaer has worked wonders to this point but has yet to be confirmed as the long-term United boss, with executive vice-chair Ed Woodward and the United board yet to make a final decision on who will take charge in 2019-20.
With a number of criteria to fulfil, the Norwegian has excelled in some but how has he performed across the board so far?
- Are Chelsea the envy of Europe? Lampard has reserves that would walk into other top teams
- Stop complaining, Conte: Inter coach out of excuses ahead of Real Madrid showdown
- Ole can't overlook Van de Beek any longer - Man Utd's underused Dutchman deserves to start every game
- Cole Palmer: Man City's teen star hoping to follow in Foden's footsteps
Goal takes a look at how he has managed to impact Manchester United to date.
- Julian Finney
Fourteen wins in 19 ensures an immediate pass mark in this category, even if that comes with the qualifier that things were looking even more impressive until defeats to Arsenal and Wolves in their last two fixtures.
The FA Cup exit will have hurt Solskjaer more than it might have stung some of his predecessors, so intent has he been on hunting down silverware above and beyond any other targets.
However, his excellent return across the three months he has been in charge has put United in far better shape than they were in in December.
Indeed, the Portuguese claimed shortly before his dismissal that it would be “almost a miracle” for them to get back into the top four yet here they are, in fifth place, just two points behind Arsenal and with eight games still to play.
The Norwegian has brought a real Manchester United edge back to his team’s play, with the greater urgency injected into their football resulting in greater rewards.
He has not changed their shape too dramatically, alternating primarily between the 4-3-3 employed by Mourinho in the second half of his reign and a diamond midfield which has similarly promoted a more dynamic style of play.
His greatest success has been in getting better performances out of Paul Pogba, with the Frenchman revelling in the opportunity to play with greater freedom thanks to the deployment of Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera in clearer roles than was once the case.
It has also been to Pogba’s – and United’s – advantage that the forward players have been encouraged to ask more questions of opposition defenders, with bigger spaces opening up for the World Cup winner to exploit as a result of a more energetic attack and a higher pressing game off the ball.
Also, the victory at Tottenham early in Solskjaer’s reign was achieved thanks in large part to the decision to pick Marcus Rashford on the right of attack rather than through the middle, with Jesse Lingard being asked to act as a conduit between the midfield and the forward line in the centre of the pitch.That success was just one of a number of examples of Solskjaer making slight alterations, and he has often made in-game changes which have addressed issues when things haven’t quite gone to plan, such as switching to a back three away to Arsenal in order to regain a foothold in the game after some early struggles.
- Getty Images
Not only has Pogba become an entirely different player under Solskjaer, but the likes of Marcus Rashford, Luke Shaw and Anthony Martial have also excelled since the change of management.
Rashford was actually starting to find his stride towards the end of Mourinho’s time in charge, but he has reached a new level under Ole.
A run of 10 goals in 21 games, including eight in 18 since Solskjaer came in, marks his greatest streak of scoring form at first-team level, and his composure in front of goal has reached heights that he barely seemed capable of troubling during some of his more profligate moments of seasons gone by.
Shaw has clearly benefitted from the new levels of attacking freedom allowed by the caretaker-manager, and the departure of a man who publicly undermined him so relentlessly can surely only have helped his development too.
Martial may not have delivered the goals return of some of the other forwards, but he has looked a much greater threat when given licence to attack space.
Victor Lindelof has also gone from strength to strength, while even Romelu Lukaku has rediscovered his scoring touch despite going through a period during which he was basically asked to play the role of super-sub.
His latest injury setback has hardly helped his cause and it is he who provides Solskjaer with his biggest question mark at this point, even if the boss has left it on the player’s shoulders to find a long-term solution.
“I can’t do anything about Alexis Sanchez. When he plays he needs to find himself, because we know there is a quality player there,” said Solskjaer in February.
- Getty Images
It took Lukaku only two minutes to score after coming on against Bournemouth in Solskjaer’s third game in charge, and when he netted within a minute of entering the following match at Newcastle to break the deadlock, it looked as though the caretaker had a golden touch.
But it hasn’t been plain sailing in this regard since then, even if some of his decisions of late have been conditioned by a mounting injury list which has left him dipping into the academy ranks.
In the home leg against Paris Saint-Germain it took him until six minutes from time to release Lukaku into the game, leaving the Belgian with little chance to affect the 0-2 scoreline, while in the recent FA Cup reverse to Wolves, Solskjaer failed to make a move until after an opening Wolves goal which had been coming for some time.
He also left it until the last five minutes to throw in Juan Mata and Scott McTominay rather than looking to change his side’s fortunes immediately after falling two goals behind.
For the most part he has proved adaptable, though, and his great relationship with his coaching staff has helped to bring about considered changes at crucial times in other games.
He encourages input from Mike Phelan, Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna at all times, ensuring that while he makes the final call, there is always group input into any switch made during matches.
Emphasis on Youth
Like any manager stripped of 10 first-team players due to injury, Solskjaer’s use of a number of youngsters has been partly enforced. But having immediately made public his intention to give kids a chance, the 46-year-old has followed through on his promises.
Ahead of his very first game in charge, he took James Garner to Cardiff as part of his travelling squad and would later hand the central midfielder a debut late on in the win at Crystal Palace.
His decision to give Angel Gomes a 10-minute run-out in his first home game in charge – against Huddersfield in December – was met with widespread approval among a United fan base to whom the promotion of academy products has always been one of the appeals of following the club.
He then gave Tahith Chong a first-team debut in the FA Cup match against Reading and was willing to trust Mason Greenwood in handing him a senior bow in the white-hot environment that was the final few moments of that wonderful win in Paris.
Rather than pussyfoot around the subject of promoting youth players, Solskjaer has backed them unstintingly.
His public proclamation that Garner could be “the next Michael Carrick” was proof enough that he is ready to throw responsibility the way of any youngster who is primed to make the step up.
Transfers and Contracts
When United sold Marouane Fellaini to Shandong Luneng shortly after Jose Mourinho’s ‘Manager’s Player of the Year’ Scott McTominay had been demoted to the reserve team, it seemed as though a new broom had been swept through the corridors of the club’s Carrington training base.
McTominay had already been handed a new four-year deal by then, though, and earlier this month was the star of the show in United’s 3-1 win away to PSG, underlining the fact he still has plenty to offer if utilised better than he was at times under Mourinho.
Elsewhere, there has been a new contract for fans’ favourite Anthony Martial and a more surprising long-term renewal for Phil Jones, while club captain Antonio Valencia’s expiring deal has been allowed to enter its final few months as United have decided against taking their option for an extra year.
While all this business has been conducted largely over a period which pre-dates Solskjaer’s arrival, the caretaker-boss has had a big say in the direction the club should be taking.
“We’ve been discussing the future of the club,” he explained recently. “We did that before I had won two or three games and all this talk about if I should stay on or not.
"You have to plan. Even if I’m not here, I still give my view on who I would like to see as a supporter.”
Fans will be happier once David de Gea and prominent players have been tied down to longer-term deals and many have already questioned the need to retain Jones, but for the most part there is widespread agreement on the other moves that have been made thus far.
- Getty Images
One thing which cannot be questioned is the difference in the atmosphere around United these days, both at Old Trafford and in day-to-day life at Carrington.
Solskjaer has managed to return a true United air to the club, with the results he has attained simply a reflection of the work he has put in behind the scenes.
Having got the team playing good football in a style more akin to Sir Alex Ferguson than other predecessors have managed, he has also lifted the mood around the training ground thanks to his naturally sunny demeanour.
With his tendency to answer any question relating to the club’s aims and objectives with a simple “We’re Man United,” he has reminded many of the expectation demanded of a football giant and the response has been unanimously positive.
Carrington is a good place to be once more. There are no off-limits conversations anymore when it comes to the state of the football or the wider direction of the club, and so much of that comes back to Solskjaer’s influence.
What's more, he has had the fans on side from the start. He just gets what it means to be at Manchester United and the supporters have thrown their weight behind him as a result, lifting the atmosphere at Old Trafford.
The oft-pedalled line about Ole bringing a smile back to United is no cliché, and the fact that his happy-go-lucky approach is in stark contrast to the previous manager’s could hardly have resulted in a bigger change in atmosphere around the club.
One area in which the transition from Mourinho to Solskjaer returns a huge decline relates to the club’s commercial pull.
As a lover of hugely sellable assets, executive vice-chair Ed Woodward was the driving force behind bringing Mourinho to the club in 2016 as he looked to add to United’s appeal by adding perhaps the greatest off-field asset possible in modern management.
Solskjaer comes from another stable entirely in this regard, with United being the only major club who would ever have considered him for the position.
He is not one of the instantly recognisable faces of coaching in the way that Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Zinedine Zidane, Antonio Conte or Carlo Ancelotti are, and that is reflected in United’s expectations as to the commercial constraints which would come along with appointing Solskjaer in the longer term.
While he revealed earlier this month that he has participated in a video promoting season-ticket renewals, he is unlikely to adorn billboards in the Far East or Australia ahead of the summer tour in a way which may have been anticipated of Mourinho.
Solskjaer is a big name to the died-in-the-wool United supporter, but isn’t about to do adverts for companies like American Express, Lipton Ice Tea, Adidas or Heineken, and in Woodward’s world that can have an influence.
Results will surely have the bigger say in a final call on the former striker’s future and his off-field appeal should be the factor which has the least sway with Woodward and the board.
But it cannot be said that Solskjaer’s saleability will not be considered to some degree at least in the decision-making process given recent history.