Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has spent much of his time as Manchester United manager harking back to the club’s trophy-laden past under Alex Ferguson.
Now it’s time to focus on the future — and he knows it.
United’s 4-0 aggregate loss to Barcelona in the Champions League quarterfinals highlighted just how far England’s biggest club remains behind the best in Europe, six years after Ferguson’s retirement.
“I’ve said all along this isn’t going to change overnight,” Solskjaer said, “and the next few years are going to be massive for us to get to the level where Barcelona and other teams are at the moment.”
The so-called “new-manager bounce” provided by Solskjaer’s arrival in December as the replacement for Jose Mourinho masked the frailties that still existed in United’s team. From 14 wins — and only one loss — in his first 17 matches in charge, when United arguably overperformed, Solskjaer has now presided over five losses in his last seven games.
United is out of the Champions League and might not get back into the competition next season after dropping to sixth place in the Premier League.
So, the questions are coming thick and fast: Was United hasty in making Solskjaer its permanent manager on the back of his successful three months as interim coach? How much does United need to spend in the off-season to build a squad capable for challenging for the big titles? Will Paul Pogba still be at United next season? Does United need a director of football?
“We’ve got a rebuilding job,” Solskjaer said after the 3-0 loss to Barcelona in the second leg on Tuesday.
With his permanent smile and positive outlook, the Norwegian coach has been a breath of fresh air at United following the gloomy final months of the Mourinho era. His regular and sentimental references to the glory days under Ferguson — in which he played a major part — endeared him even more to fans.
At first, he was a caretaker manager but the clamour to hire him on a permanent basis became so intense that United’s American ownership relented and gave him a three-year deal on March 28. His results up to that point possibly merited it, but United could have waited until the end of the season.
United is currently on its worst run of results this season and some of Solskjaer’s selections are being scrutinized — for example, left back Luke Shaw playing as a left-sided centre back in the first leg against Barcelona and centre back Victor Lindelof as a right back in the second leg. Many fans wonder why Ashley Young is still being picked.
Solskjaer’s favoured counterattacking approach worked perfectly in United’s hot streak, but the team often had little control. Can he change his style of play to adapt to all types of games?
The squad clearly needs a shake-up, especially in defence where the much-criticized Young continues to play as an out-of-position full back. Center backs Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are still there, too, eight years after being members of the United team that lost 2-1 to Basel to get eliminated from the group stage of the Champions League.
With Ander Herrera reportedly set to join Paris Saint-Germain, central midfield seems a problem area for Solskjaer, too. Brazil international Fred has struggled to make an impression in his first season in England after moving from Shakhtar Donetsk for about $70 million despite an improvement in recent weeks, and it may be asking too much for 22-year-old Scott McTominay to be a regular.
Solskjaer also might want to strengthen the right wing, where Jesse Lingard is currently first choice. England international Jadon Sancho, who plays for Borussia Dortmund, is one option under discussion.
Can executive vice chairman Ed Woodward, whose record in the transfer market has been widely criticized, and the relatively inexperienced Solskjaer be trusted to get the right players in ahead of next season?
Solskjaer’s most important work this off-season might simply be keeping Pogba at the club, especially if United does not qualify for the Champions League.
Pogba has been linked with a move to Real Madrid, where coach Zinedine Zidane has spoken of his admiration for his compatriot and fellow World Cup-winning midfielder. Solskjaer has said he expects Pogba to stay, but the situation could change if the club’s record signing pushes for a transfer.
DIRECTOR OF FOOTBALL
United has lacked direction and strategy since Ferguson’s departure, particularly in its selection of coaches and players, and the club is looking to hire a director of football — or sporting director — for the first time.
It will be a much-needed appointment to modernize the structure at United, helping Woodward — the man who is effectively running soccer operations at the club — in areas such as recruitment, contracts and other administrative matters, as well as providing a middleman between the board and the coaching staff.
Various names have been mentioned in relation to the role but the search is ongoing. United needs to make the appointment as soon as possible so Solskjaer’s off-season planning can be accelerated.
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Steve Douglas, The Associated Press