On Tuesday, it was announced that Jose Mourinho had been sacked as manager of Manchester United, after their worst start to a season for 28 years. Later, it was revealed that the board were to appoint a caretaker manager until the end of the 2018/19 season, before choosing a more long-term manager.
The following day, it was confirmed that the caretaker manager would be Ole Gunnar Solskjær, a Man Utd cult legend who scored 126 goals in his 366 appearances for the Red Devils. The Norwegian has had mixed success as a manager, with a stellar record managing Eliteserien team Molde FK, marred by a less than convincing nine months managing Cardiff City in which he only won nine games and was relegated, despite making 30 signings.
However tempting it is to speculate about Manchester United’s success under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, we’re here to talk about his success on the pitch for the club. Winning seven league titles, two FA cups and one famous Champions League, the ‘baby-faced assassin’ was quietly present and efficient in some of United’s most successful seasons.
Coming from relative obscurity as a player from Molde FK (the team he is currently ‘on loan’ from as a manager), where he had a string of high-scoring seasons, Solskjær was by no means a big signing for Manchester United. However, he scored six minutes into his first appearance (off the bench, obviously), against Blackburn. After that, 18 goals in his first season helped him to garner a certain cult-hood. What affirmed this following was his scoring of four goals in 12 minutes against Nottingham Forest, despite being told by assistant manager Jim Ryan when being brought on to ‘keep it simple.’
What was most admirable about Solskjaer as a player was his complete acceptance and respect for the fact that he was never to be Sir Alex Ferguson’s first choice striker. Playing at the same time as greats such as Cantona, Yorke, Cole and Sheringham, he was content to play for 20 minutes, wearing 20. He moulded (there’s definitely a Molde FK pun here somewhere!) the position to be his own, and became the most lethal super-sub the world has seen.
It’s almost regrettable that Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s success as a striker is so often condensed into a single instinctive flick of the leg in the 1999 Champions League Final. However, it’s unsurprising, considering his outstretched leg made United the only English club to have ever clinched the treble.
It’s also an apt microcosm in showing how Solskjær could come off the bench and instantly change the course of the game. In the 1999 final, Manchester United had struggled all game against Bayern; losing both Roy Keane and Paul Scholes to suspension meant that they were comparatively weak in the middle of the park. After scoring from a free kick six minutes in, it didn’t seem that United could quite make it back level. It wasn’t until two strokes of managerial genius from Sir Alex Ferguson in the 67th and 81st minute, in conjunction with a lapse of concentration from Bayern, that the tables turned so dramatically. For the twelve or thirteen minutes that he was on the pitch, Solskjær showed an energy and an attacking drive that United hadn’t shown all game.
And when he flicked the ball past Oliver Kahn in the third minute of extra time, there was no ‘right place, right time’ about it. Ferguson has talked about how Solskjær would intently watch the opposing team for the entirety of the game before he came on, to find weaknesses and routes through the defence that he could exploit.
“I probably didn’t analyse the whole game. I had to think about myself, how can I do the most damage for the opposition if I come on? I sat there and I studied football games but I didn’t exactly analyse their strikers. Thierry Henry could do whatever he wanted as far as I was concerned, that was Jaap Stam’s problem. Instead I would pay attention to what the defenders and full-backs were doing wrong.”
Whenever the board showed number 20 during a Man Utd substitution, a palpable buzz went through the crowd. During Solskjær’s tenure at United, the number 20 was a symbol of possibility, of the potential for the tables to be turned. And perhaps that’s why Woodward and Co. have bought Solskjær back to Man Utd, in the hope that he can reignite an excitement in what is now a wounded team.
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