In a week that saw the naturally cheerful disposition of Ole Gunnar Solskjær raise question marks over his suitability for the role of Manchester United manager, the beleaguered Norwegian could probably have been forgiven, in his quieter moments, for reflecting on how things were this time a year ago, when he was riding a wave of euphoria and could do no wrong.
Having recently taken over from José Mourinho, Solskjær was being lauded for lancing that particularly belligerent boil and restoring the fun for players who had been performing within themselves for months. Shackles had been removed and tossed aside and, with Ole at the wheel, a new ‘good old days’ vibe had been restored to a broken club. Players were urged to express and enjoy themselves and Solskjær was being talked about in the media and on social networks as a breath of fresh air, a kind of ‘Norwegian Pine’ Glade plugin to remove the Mourinho stench.
Waves of euphoria, however, rarely last too long. All it takes is a few bad results for the very people who were praising you for your effortless charm to start calling you a fraud. So it was with Solskjaer once the wheels came loose after knocking Paris Saint-Germain out of the Champions League. Suddenly he was a chancer, his good-naturedness little more than a jester’s hat that was now missing a few bells.
Fast forward to the first week of 2020, with a year’s worth of choppy water under the bridge, and Solskjær is having to fend off accusations of not being up to the task of rebuilding the club he played for with such distinction because, among other things, he smiles in his post-match interviews.
Robin van Persie started the ball rolling after United’s admittedly dire defeat to Arsenal on New Year’s Day. “How can anyone take this guy seriously if he’s smiling after a performance like that?” was the gist of it and, true to form, United fans on social media latched on to Van Persie’s comments as if Solskjær had donned a comedy horse outfit, with Mike Phelan bringing you the rear, to conduct his interview.
People have short memories, of course. It was only in September, having lost 2-0 to West Ham United, that Solskjær said “Why wouldn’t you be angry when you lose a game? Of course, you’re angry within. That’s one thing; you put pressure on yourself, and you’re competitive. I want to win every single training session. I wanted to beat Roy [Keane] in cards on the team coach! But I don’t show it to everyone.”
“Maybe the ones who know me the best will see how I feel. I can’t go out [like that], I manage my way, and lead the players my way, and I lead these players the way I deem to be right, and what’s said in the dressing room is said in there, and it stays there.”
Perhaps people would be happier if Solskjær covered himself in ashes and wore a black veil to face the cameras after a defeat in future, though it’s doubtful. van Persie, for his part, probably didn’t expect his comments to strike quite such a chord with so many who seem to think that Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket would have a better chance of knocking these United players into shape.
He must surely also realise that Solskjær was right when he repeatedly warned, last season and over the summer, that the scale of the mess he inherited from Mourinho would inevitably take more than one transfer window to fix.
“We have to take one step at a time,” Solskjær said after United’s Champions League elimination last April, “and any new player has to be the right player, the right fit.”
“We plan to be in the top four and we plan to be in the Champions League next year. But we have short-term and long-term aims. The long-term targets and ambitions won’t change regardless of what happens.”
What has happened since then, of course, is half a season of frustration and inconsistency and, with Scott McTominay and Paul Pogba injured, Solskjær’s resolve when it comes to only signing players who fit his long-term vision will be severely tested this January, particularly with so many fans now baying for blood.
United’s predicament was laid bare against Wolverhampton Wanderers on Sunday, in another performance widely criticised for its lack of creativity and sparkle. Then again, teams with far superior midfields than one containing Nemanja Matić and Juan Mata have come away from Molineux with worse results than a bland 0-0, even allowing for the fact that Wolves, too, rested some of their big guns. Were Matić and Mata horses, comedy or otherwise, they would have been shipped off to be turned into glue long ago.
Solskjær may have to hope he can just get through the next few weeks without too much damage being inflicted on his exhausted squad, with any positive results picked up along the way a bonus. And, while it’s unlikely he will be enjoying the kind of praise he was receiving this time last year come the end of the month, it is safe to assume he will continue to smile throughout. That, after all, is his nature. For those of us who recall the misery of the Mourinho era, and understand the scale of the rebuild Solskjær promised to carry out, the smiles are still, just about, welcome, though the wave of euphoria crashed to earth long ago.
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