Good, bad and ugly of Solskjaer's first 100 games as Man United boss

Man United’s last two matches sum up Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s 100-game reign… A brilliant win followed by a dismal defeat. He’s back under pressure, with expectations low and illogical recruitment NOT helping

  • Manchester United lost 1-0 to Arsenal in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s 100th game
  • It was a lacklustre performance just days after stunning 5-0 RB Leipzig win
  • This was just another case of two steps forward, one back for Solskjaer’s United
  • Norwegian has produced tactical masterclasses to win some of the big games
  • But United then revert to type by losing in dismal fashion the following week
  • Solskjaer hasn’t been helped by dysfunctional recruitment behind the scenes 
  • Now there are genuine questions as to whether Solskjaer can take them further 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s 100th match as Manchester United manager didn’t exactly bring cause for celebration.

A dismal performance in a 1-0 home defeat to Arsenal means the worst opening to a league season at Old Trafford since 1972 and sees United marooned in 15th place in the table.

There has been something very Jekyll and Hyde about Solskjaer’s United for some time and we’ve seen it once again this week.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on the sidelines as Manchester United lost 1-0 at home to Arsenal on Sunday in what was his 100th match as manager

Paul Pogba was responsible for conceding the penalty that resulted in Arsenal’s winning goal

Lacklustre performances in Premier League games against Chelsea and Arsenal either side of an exhilarating 5-0 rout of RB Leipzig in the Champions League.

One week Solskjaer’s United appear to be tantalisingly close to replicating the kind of exciting and successful football of the Sir Alex Ferguson era, the next they give the appearance of also-rans heading for a mid-table finish.

So as Solskjaer passes his 100th game milestone, we take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from his reign so far.

THE GOOD

Let’s start with the positives because, at times, it has genuinely looked as though Solskjaer’s United are making forward strides back to prominence.

His one full season in charge did result in a third-place finish and a return to Champions League football, which is seen as the bare minimum of expectations at Old Trafford.

United also reached semi-finals in the Europa League, FA Cup and EFL Cup which, at most other clubs, would be regarded as a fine achievement.

United being United, however, and the emphasis was more on the fact they lost all three.

There have been blistering spells of form under Solskjaer in which United have looked like the United of old, ripping opponents apart with waves of attacks.

Marcus Rashford (right) celebrates scoring United’s winner against PSG a fortnight ago 

United’s attackers looked sensational as they thrashed Leipzig 5-0 on Wednesday night but then failed to find any way through Arsenal on Sunday

Solskjaer’s first 100 

Won 55 Drawn 21 Lost 24

Win percentage 55

Ferguson’s first 100

W 48 D 31 L 21 (48%)

Mourinho’s first 100

W 62 D 23 L 15 (62%)

Van Gaal’s first 100

W 52 D 25 L 23 (52%)

Solskjaer was a breath of fresh air following the toxicity of the Jose Mourinho era, immediately revitalising an ailing team by winning his first eight matches in charge and 14 of his first 17 to earn the post permanently.

It was the same during the second half of last season. From January 26 onwards, United lost just two of 25 matches either side of the Covid-19 lockdown – both of those being semi-finals.

When it clicked, United looked invincible and the spell immediately after the three-month shutdown saw some outstanding displays as they finally asserted their authority over lesser teams that liked to sit deep.

Let’s not forget either that those poor displays against Chelsea and Arsenal can be counted as aberrations.

More often than not against difficult opposition, Solskjaer does get it right with his tactics and team selection, which are often quite bold.

Last season, United beat Manchester City three times, Chelsea three times, took four points off Tottenham and were the only team to hold champions-elect Liverpool in the league until February 29.

There have been two stunning away wins over Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League. The away goal victory in the Parc des Princes that sealed the job on a full-time basis and the unexpected 2-1 win there a couple of weeks ago.

Solskjaer celebrates after the stunning 2019 win over PSG that secured him the job full-time

Harry Maguire and Dan James celebrate United’s 2-1 win at Manchester City in December 2019

The 5-0 thrashing of Leipzig that gave United control over their Champions League group last week was the ultimate example of how devastating the forward line can be when it all comes together.

There was also praise for United’s movements in the transfer market last season.

The summer signings of Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James followed by the transformative purchase of Bruno Fernandes in January were all seen as positives.

The benefit of hindsight may have forced some revision when it comes to Maguire and James, however.

Bruno Fernandes has proved a transformative signing since his arrival back in January

THE BAD

Sunday’s defeat to Arsenal definitely represented a low point but it wasn’t the nadir of Solskjaer’s 100 games.

It does baffle so many observers as to how United can be so devastatingly creative and clinical on the Wednesday against Leipzig but look so devoid of imagination on the Sunday against Arsenal.

Consistency of results continues to elude Solskjaer’s United. The two steps forward of a run of positive results is almost always followed by the knockback of a series of defeats.

Just when you think the team is gaining the kind of momentum that could deliver the first silverware of Solskjaer’s reign, they revert to type.

Dejection for United’s players as Arsenal celebrate their first win at Old Trafford for 14 years

United came up short in three semi-finals last season – including against Chelsea in the FA Cup

Though United did put together a good run of results to claim third place last season – something far from guaranteed when the league restarted – they failed under the pressure of one-off cup semi-finals against Chelsea and Sevilla.

Solskjaer has also failed to fully figure out how United break down opponents who face them with eight or nine men behind the ball and this has led to some demoralising results.

The beginning of last season was particularly woeful, with United losing at home to Crystal Palace, then away to Newcastle, West Ham, Bournemouth and Watford all before Christmas.

And when United were beaten 2-0 at home by Burnley in late January, it genuinely looked as though Solskjaer would get the chop.

They also came out second best to Sevilla in the UEFA Europa League semi-final in August

A miserable 2-0 home defeat to Burnley in January left Solskjaer fearing for his job

He turned things around in fine fashion but the next crisis is always just around the corner. United continue to lose matches to the kind of opposition that would have been brushed aside in Ferguson’s day.

It’s this inconsistency that explains why they finished some 33 points behind Liverpool and 15 adrift of City last season – an embarrassing gulf by the standards of the club.

They’ve already lost three times this season, including the low point of a 6-1 home drubbing by Mourinho’s Tottenham, and it’s the first time in almost 50 years they have failed to win one of their first four home league games.

United already trail leaders Liverpool by nine points. Jurgen Klopp’s side have the knack of grinding out victories even when short of key personnel or far short of their best. It’s a knack United lost some time ago.

Fred and Harry Maguire react during United’s 6-1 humiliation at the hands of Tottenham

The fact Solskjaer’s predecessor Jose Mourinho was in charge of Spurs just made it worse

THE UGLY

Solskjaer very much lived the successful Ferguson years at Old Trafford and has tried to restore the high standards of that time.

Things were always going to be different and difficult after Fergie’s retirement in 2013 but United fans (and former players in the TV studios) must shudder at the general lowering of expectations.

‘We need to get points on the board. We didn’t get our third win until the 10th game last year and we’ve played six this year,’ Solskjaer said after Sunday’s loss.

You don’t say, Ole. The mitigation of an unprecedented short pre-season loses its impact when United are sat 15th in the table six games in.

This was the case long before Solskjaer was appointed but expectations have been allowed to slump at Old Trafford. Where it was once only acceptable to talk about winning the title, now a top four finish is acceptable.

Questions have to be asked of the recruitment strategy of Ed Woodward and his team

Keeping summer signing Donny van de Beek happy has only added to Solskjaer’s problems

How expectations have lowered  

Speaking about a top four finish being an achievement would never have happened in Sir Alex Ferguson’s day but it’s now become the norm at Old Trafford in a trend that started well before Solskjaer came in. 

Solskjaer speaking ahead of the 2019-20 season…

‘It’s going to be a rebuild. We know it’s going to take a few transfer windows… We plan to be in the top four and we plan to be in the Champions League next year. But we have short-term and long-term aims.’

Solskjaer on winning trophies…

‘We’ve got to be honest enough to say it is more difficult now. We’ve always had challengers, whether it was Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool. But most of the time it was just one of them challenging us. Finishing third wasn’t normal. Now there are at least four, maybe five teams that can win the league and the cups.’

Speaking about finishing in the top four before the last game of last season…

‘Of course we want to be in amongst the elite in Europe and play in the Champions League, but the old Winston Churchill quote is, ‘success isn’t final, failure isn’t fatal – then what you need is the courage to continue.’

After sealing third place last season…

‘To finish third with this team and this squad, and where we have been with this rebuild, has been a massive achievement by everyone. We’ve come so far as a team, we’re building a culture.’

After Sunday’s defeat to Arsenal…

‘We need to get points on the board. We didn’t get our third win until the 10th game last year, we’ve played six this year and have only two.’

Finishing third last season was regarded as an achievement because it delivered Champions League football and the associated financial boost. United’s many sponsors and their accountants are no doubt satisfied.

The chasm between United and their two main rivals didn’t seem to register, nor the fact they haven’t won a trophy in three years.

While Solskjaer does usually get his tactics right in the bigger games – if not the lesser ones – there was certainly cause for criticism against Arsenal.

As Gary Neville pointed out, the balance of the side was wrong, there wasn’t enough urgency and Solskjaer waited too long to sort things out.

Roy Keane also spoke about a lack of leadership in the United team and the absence of aggression in the performance, especially as the home side.

United waited right until the last minute before signing free agent Edinson Cavani 

United’s priority should have been a centre-half to help out Maguire (left) and Lindelof but they failed to sign one during the summer window

‘We kept talking after the Spurs game and whether they turned a corner. It’s the longest corner ever,’ Keane said. He’s right – two steps forward, one back.

Not all of this is Solskjaer’s fault. Much of it comes down to the rot that has set in behind the scenes, something manifested most obviously in transfer dealings.

The transfer policy adopted by Ed Woodward and the United hierarchy is haphazard at best and you wonder whether Solskjaer actually has any input.

Surely the United manager would have asked Woodward and his team to sign a centre-back during the summer window.

Instead they end up with a midfielder in Donny van de Beek who, although clearly very able, is surplus to requirements and whose arrival has just left Solskjaer with a tougher midfield puzzle to solve.

Pogba wanting to play No 10 instead of Bruno Fernandes has caused Solskjaer a headache 

With Paul Pogba agitating to play the No 10 role performed so admirably by Fernandes and basically refusing to become a holding midfielder, Solskjaer has little choice but to rotate to prevent his midfield being swamped.

Then they sign a left-back, a couple of youngsters who aren’t ready for the first team and a veteran striker in Edinson Cavani.

A big name, undoubtedly, but the painfully laboured way in which United brought in this free agent suggests that he was far from being anyone’s choice.

Meanwhile, Woodward didn’t want to pay Borussia Dortmund’s asking price for No 1 summer target Jadon Sancho.

United courted Jadon Sancho but were unwilling to pay Borussia Dortmund’s asking price

It all speaks to a lack of joined-up thinking behind the scenes that only puts more pressure on the manager.

After all, he will be the fall-guy if United’s league position doesn’t improve and is now leading the sack race with some bookmakers.

Solskjaer will always be United’s Treble-winning hero and a club icon. His reputation in the eyes of most supporters won’t be trashed by a turbulent spell in charge at a club that has become dysfunctional. 

After all, more experienced managers Louis van Gaal and Mourinho also failed before him. 

The Norwegian hasn’t been helped by his superiors but there must also be urgent questions asked about how far he can actually take them from here.

That’s if his players’ poor performances don’t cost him his job anyway.  




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