The manager of Manchester United isn’t doing a bad job, is he? I mean, considering he’s a PE teacher and everything. Considering that he’s just a cone-man. Considering he just hands out the bibs and collects the balls. Considering he’s a novice who’s way out of his depth at Old Trafford. Considering he’s just a nerd in thrall to the big-name players.
Those were a few of the labels some people hung around the neck of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer when he took over at Old Trafford.
Those are the accusations they’re still making, although that noise fell silent when United went level on points with Liverpool at the top of the table on Friday when they beat Aston Villa to make it eight wins in their last 10 Premier League games.
The treatment of Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer says a lot about our preconceptions of what it takes to be a successful Premier League manager
He does not have the charisma that the likes of Pep Guardiola (left) and Jose Mourinho have
The treatment of Solskjaer says a lot about our preconceptions of what it takes to be a successful manager in the Premier League in the 21st century. Solskjaer doesn’t fit the template we have created.
There is no cult of personality around him as there is with Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Jose Mourinho. He does not have the charisma that those men have. That is one thing that has been mobilised to damn him.
He is polite, too. Anger and rudeness are not part of his make-up. We like a manager to rage on the touchline, to show passion, to inspire his players with obvious emotion that shows how much they care. We like obvious leaders. It appeals to our football machismo.
Solskjaer’s softer, gentler persona does not fit with the qualities we expect in a man who can lead one of the elite clubs to the title. Sir Alex Ferguson was a hard man. Solskjaer does not give off the same vibe.
We have also grown accustomed to trusting coaches from Germany, Italy and Spain. It is obvious but it’s true. There is a reason for that: success begets success. It’s a natural instinct.
We want someone who can replicate what Klopp has done, for example, and so we gaze towards Julian Nagelsmann or Thomas Tuchel. Solskjaer, derided as a tactical novice, selected teams that beat them both this season.
But there’s nothing sexy about being a manager from Norway with Molde on your CV. The only thing worse than that in coaching is being British. That won’t do you any favours, either, if you covet a job with one of the big teams.
Every time United fail to win a game, you will find #oleout trending on Twitter. The pressure on him has been relentless and unforgiving.
There is no cult of personality around him as there is with Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp
Solskjaer has had all this to overcome and more. United’s recruitment policy under Ed Woodward has been shambolic at times.
Last summer in the transfer market, Solskjaer needed a right winger and a centre half with pace. He got another attacking midfielder, Donny van de Beek, who has spent most of his time at Old Trafford sitting in the stand with the other substitutes.
Many have never given Solskjaer a chance at United. They demeaned him from the start. They painted him as Woodward’s useful idiot, a yes-man for a clueless executive vice-chairman, someone who wouldn’t rock the boat, someone who had neither the coaching ability nor the force of character to shake the club free of the mediocrity that assailed it when Ferguson left in 2013.
Even last week, I heard someone suggesting that Solskjaer would already have been sacked if United had not signed Bruno Fernandes a year ago. It was a strange argument.
Liverpool might not have won the title last year if they hadn’t signed Virgil van Dijk in 2018. But they did sign him. Just as Solskjaer signed Fernandes. And, yes, he has been a catalyst for improvement. It’s how it works.
But critics went silent when United moved level on points at the top when they beat Aston Villa
Sure, it’s way too early to garland Solskjaer with laurels. We’re only a few days into the new year, not quite halfway through this strange season. United haven’t broken free of the shackles of the past just yet.
And, yes, it is so tightly bunched at the top of the table that a couple of bad results and Solskjaer and his side could quickly slide out of the top six. But just by turning United into title challengers again, Solskjaer has already achieved more than any of the men who have followed Ferguson and tried to emulate him.
It was a Herculean task cleaning up the mess and the division bequeathed him by Mourinho but Solskjaer has stuck calmly and methodically to that task and it is finally beginning to pay dividends.
His man-management, too, has been first class. Compare the way he has handled Paul Pogba and his troublesome agent Mino Raiola with the way that Mikel Arteta has banished Mesut Ozil at Arsenal. Pogba has caused plenty of angst for Solskjaer but, recognising his talent, he has resisted the temptation to exile him.
Ed Woodward stuck with Solskjaer and now there are glimpses that his faith may be rewarded
Turning United around has been like trying to right a super tanker. But there are signs that Solskjaer is closer than any of his post-Ferguson predecessors to getting it right and that finally the poison of mediocrity and self-obsession is seeping out of the system.
United are not perfect. They still appear vulnerable at the heart of defence. They start games poorly too often. The side sometimes looks unbalanced and over-reliant on Fernandes. And they have benefited from the travails of others.
‘The biggest reason they have a chance,’ Jamie Carragher wrote on Saturday, ‘is because the country’s two outstanding sides — Liverpool and City — have dropped back.’
Their difficulty might yet be United’s opportunity. If it is, it will be time to give some credit to another member of the United hierarchy, too.
I have often been critical of Woodward’s influence but many club chief executives might have bowed to the pressure to fire Solskjaer some time ago. Woodward stuck with him. And now there are glimpses that his faith may be rewarded.
Solskjaer signed Bruno Fernandes and yes he has been a catalyst for improvement at United
Cavani ban is too harsh
There is no room for mixed messaging about racial abuse in football, particularly when there is so much evidence that prejudice around the game is on the rise again.
However, even within that context, the three-match ban and £100,000 fine handed out to Manchester United’s Edinson Cavani for writing what he intended as an affectionate greeting to a friend on social media — but which carries different connotations in our culture — seems excessively harsh.
I realise the FA’s hands were tied by their own rules and that there is a minimum three-match ban for anyone found guilty of using racially loaded language ‘in writing or via any communication device’ but the Uruguay striker’s action was not malevolent.
It was a matter of a lack of education about what is acceptable in two different cultures.
But when Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva only received a one-match ban for sending team-mate Benjamin Mendy what we consider racially offensive cartoon images, the severity of Cavani’s sanction feels unjust and puzzling.
Manchester United’s Edinson Cavani’s three-match ban and £100,00 fine seems excessive
Yes, Greaves deserved a knighthood
Jimmy Greaves’ wife, Irene, noted last week that the award of an MBE to her husband, the greatest scorer in the history of the English game, was too little, too late. She was right, of course.
Greaves, who also brought joy to millions as a television presenter and set an example of how to beat alcohol addiction, should have been knighted 20 years ago. That would have provided a fairer indication of his contribution to sport in this country and the affection in which he is held.
In the end, it took a Daily Mail campaign to help to correct such an obvious wrong. If he were an arms dealer or a political party donor, he would not have needed people to fight for him like this but that’s the honours system for you.
Former striker Jimmy Greaves should have been knighted 20 years ago for his achievements