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Europa League final: How Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can prove critics wrong

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer brought Mike Phelan back to Manchester United as his assistant manager
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer brought Mike Phelan back to Manchester United as his assistant manager

On Sunday, as Manchester United ended the Premier League season in second place and unbeaten away from home, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was asked if he felt a personal sense of satisfaction.

The manager started his answer by talking about the pride he felt in his players. It was only halfway through that he addressed the specific point.

“It has never been about me,” he said. “People can write anything they want about me as long as it isn’t lies. My job is to do my best for Manchester United. Any opinion, I don’t care about.”

This is just as well.

Solskjaer’s two full seasons in charge at Old Trafford have ended in the first back-to-back top three finishes since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013.

They are only the fourth team in English top-flight history to complete a league season unbeaten away from home.

On Wednesday in Gdansk, Solskjaer could become only the fourth United manager to lift a European trophy, when they face Villarreal in the Europa League final.

Yet, for many, the Norwegian is a lucky man. Nowhere else, his critics argue, would someone of such limited managerial standing have secured themselves such a big job.

This assessment overlooks some key reasons behind Solskjaer’s appointment in the first place – and ignores the progress United have made under their manager, even if his work still has some way to go before it can be regarded as an unqualified success.

The ‘cultural reboot’

After sacking Jose Mourinho as United manager on 18 December, 2018, executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward made what, to many, was a surprising telephone call.

Solskjaer was back in Norway at Molde, where he had first impressed between 2011 and 2015, winning the first two league titles in the club’s history before quitting for an ill-fated nine-month stint with Cardiff, which included relegation from the Premier League.

But Woodward wanted someone who understood United, who was strong enough to deal with the club’s expectations but also knew the demand to win with style.

Woodward called it a “cultural reboot”. Solskjaer – the Champions League final matchwinner of 1999, and a manager Ferguson always felt had the capability to become a top coach – fitted the template. More to the point, he was up for the challenge.

‘Let’s put our foot on the floor and go for it’

It’s about putting smiles on people’s faces – Solskjaer

The task was simple. Give United’s players the freedom to play.

There were nerves and apprehension on both sides on that very first morning. Someone who witnessed it said it was like “walking into a smoke-filled room, everyone with their heads down”. There were only four days between Solskjaer’s appointment, initially on a temporary basis, and his first match, away to his former club Cardiff.

“We didn’t have time to do anything,” BBC Sport has been told by a source. “We took it back a bit to the tradition of the club, which was open, expansive and attacking, win, lose or draw. Let’s put our foot on the floor and go for it. It was massively risky.

At Cardiff, Solskjaer’s side roared to a 5-1 win. It was the first time United had scored five in a league game since Ferguson’s last match in charge, a 5-5 draw at West Brom more than five years earlier. It was the start of a run of eight successive wins – and 14 victories from 17 games, ending in March 2019 with the 3-1 success at Paris St-Germain that overturned a two-goal deficit from the home leg and swept United into that season’s Champions League quarter-finals.

Behind the scenes, the intensity at training had been turned up massively. “Everything was quicker, sharper, faster,” BBC Sport has been told.

Then they hit the wall. After signing a three-year contract as permanent boss on 28 March, Solskjaer’s United won just two of their final 10 games, finishing with a home defeat by relegated Cardiff. Already, questions were being asked about the wisdom of appointing someone with little top-level managerial experience.

‘Football people’ and the Fernandes factor

At this point, though, Solskjaer’s impact needed to be judged on more than just results. Work was going on behind the scenes to change the mood at the club.

Various heads of department were brought back into meetings and encouraged to have a voice. The allocation of rooms at United’s Carrington training ground was changed, the idea being that the first people players came into contact with on arrival were “football people”. The first rooms they walked past were “football rooms”, the canteen became a welcoming place.

Things were happening on the playing side, too. Youngsters such as Mason Greenwood and Tahith Chong were brought into first-team training.

The idea was to give the training ground – and the club – the feel of what it had been when Ferguson was in charge. That feel included a demand to look smart. Players were ordered to wear shirt and tie on club trips. To some, it was an alien concept and they were not keen. Solskjaer stressed the importance of representing the badge and the history it stood for. Players were reminded of their responsibilities and told to be punctual.

Results on the pitch, though, could not be ignored. And by late January 2020, they were turning against Solskjaer.

A 2-0 home defeat by Burnley, when United were jeered by their own fans, was the nadir. With 14 league games left, they were four points off the top four – and 14 behind third-placed Leicester.

It was the trigger to sign Bruno Fernandes.

Solskjaer knew Fernandes’ arrival from Sporting Lisbon would change the dynamic within his dressing room.

The Portuguese midfielder’s impact was immense. He scored eight times and provided seven assists as United went unbeaten to the end of the season and secured a Champions League spot on the final day, finishing four points above Leicester. This season, Fernandes has been involved in 29 league goals, scoring 18.

Bruno Fernandes: ‘It’s an honour’ to be compared to Eric Cantona, says Man Utd midfielder

Chasing that first trophy

Solskjaer is described as a collaborative manager, someone who seeks a wide range of opinion before making major decisions. He is also an optimist.

He has a good working relationship with Woodward, which is vital when it comes to his day job.

Officially, Woodward is scheduled to step down at the end of 2021, but few expect him to remain into next season. It means more relationship building will be required at the senior levels of the club.

Solskjaer is a patient man, it is said. He will make his feelings and opinions known but he is also realistic about the limits of his squad.

For the large part, he is even-tempered, calm and rational. The very opposite of the man he still calls “the gaffer” then.

Most of all, he wants the best for Manchester United. The club is seared into his heart.

That is why, in what will be his 151st match in charge of United, he so desperately wants that first piece of silverware since taking the job. Since World War Two, only Dave Sexton was manager for longer – 201 games – without winning anything.

But Solskjaer’s grand vision is not to win the Europa League. It is to compete for the Premier League and Champions League, the tournaments he won as a player.

Gdansk is important for Solskjaer. But, for him, it is just a stopping point on a much longer journey.

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