There were four league games to go when Manchester United sacked their manager. It was mathematically impossible to qualify for the Champions League and that was proof an experiment had failed. His heart was in the right place and no one doubted how much he wanted to succeed, but, ultimately, he just wasn’t good enough.
Not Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in 2020, but David Moyes in 2014. There have been times when it felt history would repeat itself, when the Norwegian seemed another promoted beyond his station, the wrong choice for the right reasons but unfortunate evidence that sentiment gets you nowhere in a world populated by Galactico managers.
It is harder to make that claim now. A season that has featured some wretched lows – Bournemouth and Burnley, West Ham and Watford, Newcastle and Palace – may yet end on a high. Defined by the Champions League, Solskjaer looks likely to return United to it. Fifth place could be enough; a top-four finish feels more probable for the form team in the country.
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If Solskjaer is underrated, he is a reason for that. There is the relegation with Cardiff. There have been points this season when his optimism felt delusional, days when his midfield was a wasteland and game after game when his team struggled in matches where they were expected to have the ball. Yet the sunny disposition that sometimes meant it felt as though he was clutching at illusory positives at least averted a descent into Mourinho-esque negativity.
Now there are genuine grounds for optimism. United’s record run of four straight Premier League wins by three goals have come against Sheffield United, Brighton, Bournemouth and Aston Villa but these were the sorts of games, where the onus was on them to attack, where they had often proved impotent.
Until, that is, a talisman arrived. Solskjaer has been vindicated for his faith in youth, his belief better times were coming but, without a January signing, United might still be mired in mid-table mediocrity. Solskjaer may have instigated a revival; or perhaps it happened to him.
Fourteen games into his Old Trafford career, it does not feel hyperbolic to say Bruno Fernandes is United’s greatest catalyst since Eric Cantona, which is not to say he is as good as the Frenchman or their finest player since an iconoclast. But he has had a transformative effect, one that has been exacerbated by the ineffectiveness of Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira before he joined. Perhaps they signed two players in him for, without the Fernandes effect, would Paul Pogba be as happy to be back to the fold?
The Frenchman’s third coming as a United player was sealed by his first goal in 15 months; symbolically, the assist came from Fernandes. Now he does not need to decamp to Real Madrid or Juventus to have a high-class accomplice in midfield. “It’s a different team to the one he left when he was injured,” Solskjaer said. “Everything is miles better in that dressing room.”
He has long promised a brighter future, but the journey entailed a descent into darkness. “You have to remember we’ve come a long way – and we’ve come a long way in one season,” Solskjaer said. More pertinently, they have come a long way in three months of football, separated by three of lockdown.
In more ways than one, he has played a patient game. He did not panic buy a midfielder last summer and got Fernandes in January. He did not give up on Pogba and now should keep him. Champions League football and Fernandes offer twin reasons to stay. Success was self-perpetuating under Solskjaer’s mentor, Sir Alex Ferguson; there have been points under his chosen ones, Moyes and Solskjaer, when failure felt contagious.
Not now. “We are our only enemy,” Pogba said. They excelled in that self-destructive role at times before Fernandes debuted. Now a team who were eminently capable of beating themselves are 17 unbeaten. And Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may have gone from the new Moyes to the anti-Moyes.
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