When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was appointed caretaker manager on 19 December 2018, few would have expected him to still be in charge nearly three years later.
And yet, today comes the news that the legendary Manchester United striker has been awarded a new contract at Old Trafford, as his fairytale story with the club continues, and the Red Devils themselves finally put a string of poor managerial appointments behind them in this difficult post-Sir Alex Ferguson era.
How has it all fallen together so well for Solskjaer? His old team-mate Luke Chadwick isn’t too surprised to see him using the qualities he had as a player to good effect in the dugout, even if he’s aware that, back then, many Man Utd fans probably would’ve picked out the likes of Roy Keane or Gary Neville as future managers.
“He was always really studious of the game,” Chadwick told CaughtOffside. “He loved football. You could see the impact he’d make coming off the bench because he was studying the game and see where the space was for him to come on and make an impact.
“It was very apparent that all the players worked very hard, but he would go above and beyond. He would spend a lot of time in the gym trying to make himself stronger so he could compete physically in the Premier League. He was known as a sort of baby-faced assassin, but there was a lot of work that went into it to get himself in a position to have a real positive impact at the club.”
After so many difficult and unhappy times under the iron-fisted Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho, Solskjaer was a very clear breath of fresh air for these players, with Paul Pogba and Luke Shaw among those to really benefit from playing with more freedom on the pitch due to the trust of their manager.
Again, Chadwick isn’t surprised to see this approach pay off, as he hailed Solskjaer as a “fantastic person” whose approachable style makes him ideal for management in the modern game.
“He was a fantastic person – always supportive, always someone to talk to,” Chadwick said. “Quite a quiet guy, but you could see really cared about the club, he cared about how everyone in the dressing room was.
“Back then you would’ve looked at the likes of Roy Keane and Gary Neville, who were really vocal leaders, with the way that they played and spoke. They were probably the ones they were the ones who’d go on and become successful managers in the future, but I think the game’s changed a lot since then.
“I think how Ole is as a person, the way he treats his players, you can see he’s got a lot of emotional intelligence, a lot of empathy with the way that he speaks. I think he’s got more out of players than some of the previous managers have done, even the ones who were perceived as being difficult to manage; Pogba’s probably playing the best football of his Man United career, and I think Ole’s a big reason for that. Martial didn’t have a brilliant season this term but the year before that was some of the best form he’s shown in a Man United shirt.”
Chadwick has also previously spoken to us about Shaw’s improvement in particular, saying a few months back: “It’s a case of knowing your players. Luke Shaw was perhaps a player who needed an arm around him, he’d had a tough time, suffered an awful injury in that game in Holland a few years ago, and I think Ole’s the perfect man to guide Luke Shaw into the state he’s in today.”
Needless to say, Chadwick is pleased to see his old team-mate get a new contract, saying he can finally see something being built at United after so many disappointments under the previous managers who’ve been appointed since Ferguson’s retirement in 2013.
“I think if the club want to build something then I think a new contract is a good idea, because he’s shown improvement every season since he’s been there,” Chadwick said.
“Obviously he’ll be disappointed not go further in the FA Cup and to lose the Europa League final, but they’ve finished second in the Premier League, which shows improvement from last season.
“A manager needs to be there for a long time to have real success – you look at Klopp’s record at Liverpool and I think Ole stands up to that in terms of his first two years in charge. I think him signing a new deal is a huge positive for the club – it lays the foundations for a positive future.”
Some critics still feel the Norwegian tactician is lacking a ‘philosophy’ in the way that the likes of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola have implemented at their clubs, to great success. Chadwick, however, feels United’s style is showing signs of developing into something more sophisticated from the slightly one-dimensional counter-attacking style that he used when he first took over.
“More than that (philosophy) I think he just needs to win trophies. Obviously Klopp and Guardiola both play different styles of football, but what the attraction to them is that wherever they’ve been, they’ve won trophies,” Chadwick said.
“Obviously Ole’s at one of the biggest clubs in the world and the pressure’s huge but I think there is an identity forming as well … the sort of quick players looking to break quickly, but at the top end that’s not always going to work.
“I think the identity has sort of grown and evolved this season. At times last season it was purely a counter-attacking brand of football, but this season they’ve shown different ways of getting results, getting more possession and looking more confident on the ball.
“I think Ole is a lot more inexperienced than Guardiola and Klopp but his way of playing is evolving. He’s starting to find the most effective ways for United to play, he’s changed his tactics in certain games that have come off really well. It will take time, it comes with experience, but give him time and I think he can move this team forward.”
So, why did it go wrong for Solskjaer’s predecessors? Interestingly, Chadwick feels that the success of the current United boss perhaps shows that, of all the post-Ferguson appointments, it was David Moyes who maybe deserved more time in the job.
“I think it was always going to be a more or less impossible job for David Moyes,” Chadwick said. “He was taking over from probably the best manager in football history. He had to hit the ground running to appease the supporters and it didn’t quite work out.
“Did they let him go too early? Having seen what’s happened post-David Moyes, maybe that was the case. The club wanted instant success but it didn’t really work at all with Louis van Gaal or Jose Mourinho.
“I think now the club is starting to see, when you look back at the start of the Sir Alex Ferguson era, he had a tough time to begin with but was given that time to build something incredible. I think that was the plan with David Moyes originally, but because the first season went the way it did I think the club rushed to change things.
“Van Gaal came in and was a huge name, but didn’t really deliver what the club was looking for. Moyes has a wonderful record in the Premier League … he did a fantastic job at Everton and seems to be doing the same at West Ham now so I think his record speaks for itself. It obviously didn’t work out at Man United, it was straight after Sir Alex and he had to deliver immediately and that was always going to be a tough ask.
“Obviously Jose Mourinho’s another incredible manager but it seemed like another rushed decision because he was available. I’m not sure it was ever the right fit for Manchester United in terms of what the club’s all about, in terms of the style of football that’s been played at the club over the years.
“Jose spoke openly about staying at a club for a certain amount of time before moving on. United’s different with the culture of giving a coach a long period of time to stay and build something. Mourinho’s different; I’m not sure he would’ve stayed even if he had had success, given the way he’s been with other clubs in the past. Ole just seems to fit the mould of the club better than Van Gaal and Mourinho have.”
Fitting the mould isn’t always enough for the highest level, as we saw when Chelsea ultimately decided to part ways with Frank Lampard. Looking at the instant success of Thomas Tuchel when he replaced the Blues legend, perhaps United might’ve been tempted to try going down a similar route.
Instead, we’re now about to find out just how far fitting the mould can get you.