Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has spent close to three years putting his stamp on the squad and no longer has anywhere to hide in the pursuit of trophies.
United have seen steady improvement year on year since Solskjaer was appointed successor to Jose Mourinho, first as an interim and then permanently. During that time the squad has been transformed, the culture has been reset and the Norwegian has even earned a new longer contract.
Since Solskjaer took charge of his first game in December 2018, United have finished sixth, third and second in successive Premier League seasons. In 2018/19 they won a first Champions League knockout tie since 2011, in 2019/20 they reached three cup semi-finals, and in 2020/21 they reached another domestic semi-final and played in a European final.
There have been 12 permanent first-team arrivals under Solskjaer’s watch, with this summer in particular seen as a huge step forward as long-term target Jadon Sancho arriving for £73m and proven winners Raphael Varane and Cristiano Ronaldo have joined the club. As many as 11 players have also been permanently shipped out in an effort to clear deadwood from previous regimes.
So far, trophies are what have been missing, which is what United ultimately strive for – since the club’s last silverware in 2017, Manchester City have won three Premier League titles, the FA Cup and four EFL Cups, Liverpool have won the Premier League and Champions League, Chelsea have won the Champions League, FA Cup and Europa League, and even Arsenal have won the FA Cup.
The shortcomings under Solskjaer up to now have always been excused, probably fairly so, on the basis that he didn’t have the right players at his disposal, that he is building to something bigger.
Now, having recruited one of the greatest players of all time, one of the best centre-backs of his generation and a winger tipped to become world class in the not too distant future, the squad looks close to complete, perhaps bar only an extra central midfielder. The previous excuses are void.
As United marked their return to the Champions League with a disappointing 2-1 defeat to Young Boys characterised by ‘sloppy’ mistakes and, at times, ‘lazy’ defending, Solskjaer can no longer shield himself from criticism in the way that he was able to as recently as last season.
Time as a football manager is notoriously fleeting and patience only lasts so long. The time for him to deliver is now, otherwise he won’t last too much longer.
Rio Ferdinand illustrated the point on BT Sport during coverage of the game in Switzerland.
“Of all the managers in the [Premier League] top four fight, Ole hasn’t proved he can win at [Champions League] level. He’s done what he’s been asked to do up until this point. Now its D-Day,” the ex-United defender and former teammate of Solskjaer’s said.
“It’s his squad, shaped by him, a wonderful transfer window just gone, bringing in winners, people that can change the culture of this club.
“Now he’ll be judged properly. Now you’ve got to convert that to trophies and if he doesn’t his head will be on the chopping block like any other manager.”