One year on, have Manchester United improved under Solskjaer?
Background image: Matthew Wilkinson, CC BY-SA 2.0
Wednesday’s EFL Cup match against Colchester United ushered in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s second year in charge at Old Trafford. His squad marked the occasion with a 3-0 victory over the mid-table League 2 outfit. The Love-United-Hate-Glazers and Mourinho FC mobs chose to question whether Manchester United had improved under the Norwegian.
In his support for LUHG and Mourinho, Samuel Luckhurst is to the Manchester Evening News what Nigel Farage is to the EU Parliament. Before the match, the MEN’s chief United correspondent posted an article suggesting the club was a point worse in the table under Solskjaer despite the board backing the new man after refusing to do the same for Mourinho. If you're old enough, you're hearing the record needle scratch after that last bit.
Luckhurst ignores that the club spent £389 million on Paul Pogba, Fred, Nemanja Matic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Eric Bailly, Victor Lindelof, Diogo Dalot, Romelu Lukaku and Lee Grant over five transfer windows, as well as acquiring Zlatan Ibrahimovic on a free and Alexis Sanchez in a straight swap for Mkhitaryan at the Portuguese’s behest.
From those players, both managers only agreed on Lindelof’s value. Mourinho cut ties with Zlatan and Mkhi before Solskjaer entered the picture. He feuded with Pogba and rarely used Fred. Solskjaer sold Lukaku who now thrives in Antonio Conte’s system at Inter and loaned Sanchez who doesn’t. He brought the best out in Fred and continues to support Pogba despite the furore over the Frenchman’s holiday and wedding fun while injured. Matic played for Jose until the end but is only a spare part for Ole. Bailly and Dalot are perpetually injured. Grant was only ever an insurance policy.
With a recruiting record from which he can only claim credit for Lindelof, Ibra [a short-term fix] and Lukaku, three from 11 overall, four if you’d dare brag about Lee Grant, how can anyone condemn the board’s reluctance to keep funding Mourinho? To date, they’re justified in doing so for Solskjaer. The baby-faced assassin is three-for-three with Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James.
Luckhurst is factual if not contextually correct in reporting United is one point worse than they were under Mourinho after 17 Premier League match days. He could have taken the truth a step further. They’ve won a game less and scored three fewer goals. But then people might look at the full line and notice Solskjaer’s Red Devils conceded nine fewer, are six to the good in goal difference and have suffered one less defeat. On the whole, that suggests an improvement.
One could even question Mourinho’s effectiveness as United manager when a side featuring World Cup stars Lukaku and Matic along with two-time Copa America winner Sanchez barely outdoes a lineup featuring Scott McTominay, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood.
Admittedly, Jose played Rashford and McSauce during his time. He boasted that the former appeared for him more than any United player. True, but how often did he start? And how quickly was McTominay returned to the bench when the Special One had a healthy midfield complement? Like Luckhurst still inferring a year later that Pogba Instagrammed the notorious “Caption This” photo despite sponsors Adidas immediately explaining it was scheduled by them well before news broke of Mourinho’s dismissal, the new Spurs boss’ version of events bends the truth.
The pinnacle in Mourinho’s career remains the treble season at Inter. Tellingly, he hinted at his interest in the vacant Real Madrid job while his squad filled with 30-somethings was still dousing all and sundry in champagne in the Santiago Bernabeu dressing room. Then he went up to Real club president Florentino Perez’s office to agree terms. Rafa Benitez wasn’t wrong to overhaul the ageing Nerazzurri squad when he took over at the Giuseppe Meazza. His fault lay in grossly underestimating the magnitude of his task.
If he remained in charge at Old Trafford, it’s not difficult to imagine Mourinho still starting Ashley Young, Lukaku, Matic and, if healthy, Sanchez. United fans wouldn’t now be marvelling at McTominay or Rashford’s accelerated development or the potential evident in Mason Greenwood, Brandon Williams and, after the Colchester match, James Garner. We’d probably be asking why the club doesn’t sign that right-back from Crystal Palace. We know Mou wanted a centre-half but bringing in Wan-Bissaka to take over for Young? While Manchester City were interested, there was no talk of that on Mourinho’s watch, only that the 34-year-old was up for a contract extension. That, and the infamous discussion with reporters about the gaffer’s three Premier League titles.
Under Mourinho, Manchester United were a team living in the past. Solskjaer’s project is all about the future. That alone is a massive improvement.