I’d bet there isn’t a person with decision-making power at Manchester United who saw this coming, other than maybe Ole Gunnar Solskjær himself. But here we are, with United rewarding Solskjær for his complete turnaround of what looked like a lost season by officially making him the club’s permanent manager today.
For all the praise the Norwegian coach has received for his impressive and unexpected success back at the club that made him famous as a player, it’s been accompanied by just as many doubts about whether he truly is the best man for the job. That question is now moot. The job is his, and it’s up to him and the club to prove this decision is the right one.
At this point, it probably would’ve been more strange had Solskjær not been made United’s permanent manager. Regardless of what anyone thinks of Solskjær’s true level as a tactician or whatever, no one can seriously argue with his immediate and seismic affect on the team. Solskjær took over a club in free fall with an unpopular manager in José Mourinho, a fractured locker room, a boring style of play that had begun to alienate fans, and sorry prospects for success in the Champions League and, even more importantly, in the Premier League, where finishing in the top four is absolutely critical.
Right away, Solskjær made things better. With a couple slight tweaks to the style of play, keeping fewer men behind the ball in possession and thereby taking the governor off an engine desperate for permission to really open it up all the way, and a fresh and congenial approach to player-manager relations that involved being cool with the star players in place of the previous manager’s tactic of pissing them off, United took off. The team went from being longshots for a top-four league finish and massive underdogs in a Champions League round of 16 tie with PSG to fighting right back into top-four contention and upsetting the Parisians to make it into the quarterfinals. Not bad for a coach who started the year managing a club with expectations to finish second in the Norwegian league.
As unqualified of a success as Solskjær’s first few months in Manchester have been, it’s still been hard to shake the feeling that Solskjær himself might not be all that responsible for it. Is United’s revitalization attributable mostly to the new manager, or is it simply a reversion to the mean? Is Solskjær just a friendly presence enjoying a bounce after taking over for such an unlikable character as Mourinho, or is there something deeper and more sustainable behind his managing style? Is he purely a man-manager good at glad-handing with the big names, or does he have the tactical sophistication to hold his own against the likes of Guardiola and Klopp and Pochettino? Which ex-player-turned-interim-manager-turned-permanent-hire does Solskjær’s situation more closely resemble: Zidane’s time at Real Madrid or Di Matteo’s at Chelsea?
Ultimately, United are betting that Solskjær’s tenure will look more like Zidane’s wildly successful time at Madrid than Di Matteo’s ill-fated stint at Chelsea. It’s not a crazy gamble. Zidane has demonstrated the efficacy of a managing style focused more on keeping superstars happy, relaxed, and engaged over a long season at one of the game’s superclubs, while also proving that simple tactics can win just as many trophies as more elaborate ones. Solskjær is clearly well-liked at United, and while it’s too early to see the exact contours of Solskjær’s playing philosophy, he’s already been savvy enough in that department to know what to keep, what to change, and how to make it happen. Soccer is a game of players more than it is one of coaches and strategies, and it’s in the club’s ability to identify and sign great players that the primary work of returning the Red Devils to greatness will lie, not in the fancy build-up mechanisms of the coach.
That Solskjær’s work so far has earned him a shot at managing the team permanently is hard to argue, as is the idea that he’s qualified enough to make the hire a perfectly smart one. That’s different than asking if he is the best possible United manager, though, the answer to that being a pretty unequivocal no. It’s doubtful whether Solskjær has the chops to compete directly with the aforementioned likes of Guardiola, Klopp, and Pochettino, and it’s not really clear whether he’ll even ever reach the level of a Benítez, Sarri, Pellegrini, Emery, or Rodgers.
In a league with as razor thin margins as England’s, a club the size of United’s running out with a second-tier coach like Solskjær could be what keeps them from the titles they crave, even if they successfully overhaul the roster and build one with comparable talent to the likes of Man City and Liverpool. For that reason, even the most optimistic, Solskjær-supporting United fans have to be a little bummed today that the decision to hire the Norwegian probably spells an end to their hopes of attracting Pochettino next season.
However, I can’t imagine United would make this move without having good reason to believe the mooted Pochettino hire was never in the cards. (That, or the club was smart enough to include some language in Solskjær’s three-year contract that, should Pochettino come available in the summer, United could give the job to the Argentinian and send Solskjær on his way with a hearty “Thank you” and a couple million pounds.) If that’s the case, then it makes a lot of sense for United to pass the reins to one of their own right now. Someone has to manage the team, and if the ideal candidate doesn’t want to, then you might as well sign the guy who intimately knows and loves the club, and has already shown the ability to win over the players and fans while winning a some big games in the process.
Solskjær certainly isn’t the best manager in the world, and he might not even be a great one. But for a handful of important reasons, he’s probably good enough for right now. Sometimes, even for a club with as boundless ambitions as United’s, “good enough” is just that.