Surprise, surprise: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is not one-dimensional
Background image: Andre Zahn, CC BY-SA 2.0 de
A significant bloc among Manchester United supporters think very little of their manager. To them, he is inexperienced and tactically naïve in the dugout and a weak-minded sycophant behind the microphone. In part, their low opinion regarding his job performance is because he does certain things too well. Particularly, those qualities include protecting his players and the club’s image by projecting an endlessly optimistic and courteous public persona. Behind the pleasant mask lies a very different personality, however. While he rarely reveals that side in public, there’s a reason he’s known as the babyfaced assassin.
In recent weeks, the assassin has been unmasked more than once. Three incidents stand out. First, he took Robin van Persie to task for criticising him. Second, he made light of the Alexis Sanchez situation. Third, he had a go at Jesse Lingard during the EFL Cup semifinal second leg against Manchester City. Those with no faith in Ole may view the trend as an underqualified manager cracking under the pressure. They’d never consider the Norwegian could be growing from strength to strength.
Van Persie, both an Arsenal and United legend, panned Solskjaer in his role as a pundit following the Red Devils 2-0 setback to the Gunners, claiming the United manager shouldn’t be so optimistic after a defeat. Solskjaer shot back through a reporter’s question, noting RVP didn’t know him and had no basis for his criticism. He quipped that the Dutchman took his number upon arriving at Old Trafford but would take nothing else. Surprisingly for someone with a reputation for a calm, composed demeanour, Ole couldn’t leave the matter alone. Already on his feet to depart the presser, he leaned back towards the microphone to add he wasn’t stuck in the past.
His response wasn't nearly so clumsy when queried on United’s January transfer policy hours before the Bruno Fernandes news broke. He adopted the predictable but truthful argument that winter deals for top-class players are rare due to the difficulties involved. He then suggested Alexis Sanchez might return in the summer to prove everyone wrong who considered the Chilean to be at the end of the line. The remark was a joke his enemies chose to take seriously. The knives came out in the press and on social media but it was the assassin’s blade that found the heart when the Fernandes deal was confirmed the next day.
On Wednesday evening, United scored the opener against City to heap pressure on the defending Premier League and EFL Cup champions, reducing the deficit in the tie to a 3-2 aggregate score through Nemanja Matic’s stunning half-volley from a broken set-piece. In the second half, the Red Devils could level terms with another goal. If the score remained all square after 90 minutes, penalties would follow directly with no extra time. After being 3-0 down early in the first leg, Solskjaer’s side were in with a decent shout at Wembley for the final.
But Jesse Lingard’s repeated turnovers in dangerous areas prevented United from counterattacking and gave City too many opportunities to put the tie to bed. Less than ten minutes after the interval, Solskjaer could no longer contain himself. From the technical area, he screamed at the forward. Another error would see him yanked from the match.
Ultimately, the Norwegian chose not to wait for another gaffe. He pulled Lingard from the game on 65 minutes. Decision made, though, he didn’t dwell on it or his anger. He was waiting with a big smile and hug for the player when he reached the touchline. If that appears insincere, you’re not thinking like an assassin. When blood is spilt, it’s always business, never personal.
United fans shouldn’t be fooled by the mask Solskjaer wears. If they look beneath the surface, they’ll find a cold, calculating heart beating with only one purpose: to restore Manchester United to its former glory. They should remember, too, an assassin’s work is subtle, seldom accomplished in the light of day, and never done. There is always another target, usually an enemy but, when the time is right, quite possibly the powerful master who thinks he has the killer under his thumb.