‘Baby-faced assassin’ Solskjaer grows into Man Utd manager
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made his name as a player at Manchester United for his impact off the bench and his ability to work the same magic from the dugout has earned him the full-time manager’s job at Old Trafford.
Few expected Solskjaer to remain beyond his caretaker spell to the end of the season when he was hired in December in an emergency solution to a spiralling crisis towards the end of Jose Mourinho’s reign.
Solskjaer was summoned from Molde in his homeland, where he had won two league titles, but his only previous Premier League managerial experience ended in relegation and the sack at Cardiff after less than nine months in charge.
His first day began by delivering a bar of Norwegian chocolate to the long-serving receptionist on his arrival at the club’s Carrington training base.
It was a simple gesture but one that showed a personable side and deep understanding of Manchester United that has spread to help cleanse the toxic atmosphere that characterised the end of Mourinho’s era.
“From the first day I arrived, I felt at home at this special club,” said Solskjaer on Thursday.
In just over three months, he has not only transformed results on the pitch, but the whole atmosphere around the club to such an extent that the announcement that his caretaker role was being made permanent on Thursday seemed just a matter of time.
Under Solskjaer, United have cut an 11-point gap to the Premier League top four to just two and most impressively dumped out free-spending Paris Saint-Germain to make the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time in five years, with Barcelona next in line.
“The results and performances have been beyond incredible really, almost flawless,” Solskjaer’s former teammate and United captain Gary Neville told Sky Sports.
Freed from the fear of being punished for making mistakes under Mourinho, an abundantly talented squad have begun to deliver on their potential with Paul Pogba, at loggerheads with the previous manager, to the fore.
“He is a really happy coach that gave confidence back to the players,” said Pogba last week.
– Freedom to play –
“This gave us the freedom to play and enjoy football again because maybe we lost that with the results that we had before.”
Some of United’s style and swagger of old has also returned. Solskjaer still refers to his mentor Alex Ferguson as “the boss” and has tried to implement the Scot’s brand of attacking, exciting football.
“In the last two or three months, I’ve felt excited by what I’ve seen for the first time in a while, the atmosphere in the ground has returned, the joy on the fans’ faces, the away following has connected with the team again,” added Neville.
However, the result that ended any serious doubt over Solskjaer’s prospects for the job on a permanent basis also showed an ability to adapt.
Shorn of 10 first-team players through injury and suspension, United overturned a 2-0 first leg deficit to eliminate PSG on away goals with a 3-1 win in the French capital.
Victory that night and away wins at Tottenham and Arsenal have showcased a willingness to soak up pressure and hit on the counter-attack that demonstrates a greater tactical nous than simply putting smiles back on the faces of star players.
Solskjaer has also revitalised a United trait of old by looking to the club’s academy.
When needing a goal in Paris, he turned to teenagers Mason Greenwood and Tahith Chong off the bench, while academy graduates Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard have flourished.
“More than just performances and results, Ole brings a wealth of experience, both as a player and as a coach, coupled with a desire to give young players their chance and a deep understanding of the culture of the club,” said the club’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward.
Once termed the “baby-faced assassin” for his childish looks and predatory instincts in front of goal, Solskjaer has grown up fast as a manager to earn a shot his “dream job.”