Manchester United have done the right thing by handing manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer a new contract until at least 2024, with the Norwegian representing steady progress ever since he arrived back at Old Trafford a few days before Christmas 2018.
In two full seasons in charge, Solskjaer’s United have finished third and second in the Premier League, accounting for two of their three best league placings in the eight years since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, as well as reaching five cup semi-finals and playing in a European final.
The real success that the club and fans crave isn’t there just yet, but the crucial thing to remember is the ongoing development and improvement. There will come a time when it will no longer be enough to simply that United are still just getting better, but that time is not yet.
United lurched between managers who all wanted different things between 2013 and 2018, none of which ever seemed to really fit with the club’s own core philosophies. By the time Jose Mourinho was sacked, the squad was a broken concoction of conflicting regimes and the last two and a half years have largely been about ripping things up and starting afresh with a new vision.
Solskjaer arguably doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his role in that. Having spent 15 years at the club as a player and coach, he understands what United is about and should be better than most. It is something that had long been lacking, with no overarching plan or strategy.
Since his appointment on a permanent contract in 2019, there has not only been an overhaul of the playing squad, but a revamp of the scouting and recruitment process and a renewed commitment to the youth academy that had become neglected, just as it had been in the 1980s, and United are undoubtedly in a far better position now than when Solskjaer arrived. It is not up for debate.
“Ole has beaten some of the biggest managers in the game. I don’t think he gets enough credit, tactically. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because he’s an ex-player or because he managed Cardiff and that didn’t go the way he wanted. But he’s shown he can put a game plan together,” former United midfielder Owen Hargreaves exclusively told 90min in May.
Pep Guardiola didn’t win anything in his first season with Manchester City from a vastly better starting point, while Jurgen Klopp didn’t win a trophy or mount a serious Premier League title challenge until his third full season with Liverpool, who needed to build a squad first.
Solskjaer is about to begin his third full season as United boss and, with Jadon Sancho brought in to continue the recruitment and other key signings still expected, it is only now that the club can genuinely begin to compete and start to be judged against the best once more.
From a purely footballing perspective, Solskjaer is yet to consistently prove that he is an elite manager. A lack of substitutions in the Europa League final against Villarreal didn’t help that image as a tiring United looked devoid of ideas over 120 minutes in Gdansk.
But with an incomplete squad that couldn’t hope to rival Manchester City or Liverpool over the last three years, he hasn’t had the opportunity. It is also worth noting that he is unbeaten against Guardiola in the last four Premier League matches between them, winning three of them.
It may ultimately be that Solskjaer still isn’t the right manager to bring the glory days consistently back to Old Trafford. But he definitely isn’t the wrong manager so far and, as long as he continues to take the club forward, he deserves the opportunity to see it through.