It was ugly, cold, tired, fraught with incident and ultimately shattered by a piece of individual genius, but when referee Kevin Friend blew the final whistle after seven minutes of injury time (including three minutes of injury time), there was a global awareness. Manchester United finished at the top of the Premier League in January.
It’s not a high end, not an imaginary high, not a high goal difference, not a high if you control the game, but a high end.
You have to go back to 2013 (and the end of the Sir Alex Ferguson era) to find the last time United were this high at this stage of the season. That was a long time ago. Seven and a half seasons without a better year result after the turnaround…. The last time the club had such a long drought was in the 1970s – and then the club was relegated too.
What does that mean?
Read the latest news and reactions from Gabriele Marcotti, Senior Editor of ESPN FC.
That’s where you immerse yourself in psychology and intangibles. It is easy to determine what this does not mean. That doesn’t mean they’re going to win the Premier League or even that they’re the first or second favorite. (That would be Man City and Liverpool.) That doesn’t mean they’re particularly good, or that they will be in the next few years, or that the front page United fans dream of will look very much like this one. But that means the psychological barrier has been broken, and that means Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can put his – and United’s – advantage to good use.
It’s also a kind of justification for the club’s decision to turn to him to replace Jose Mourinho and essentially to bring something to the club by hiring a former player who understands ManUnited culture, rather than another full-back from elsewhere. And in that sense, it’s no different than the decisions big companies make when their board of directors takes a new direction.
– Ogden : Pogba crucial as Man United take lead
– Solskjaer: Pogba at his best in victory over Burnley.
When a multinational company needs to replace its CEO, it basically has two options. Either it promotes from within, doubling down on its corporate culture, or it brings a new approach and turns to a proven leader who can act as a disruptive force and change things for the better.
Sir Alex’s four appointments as club president fall roughly into both categories. Although David Moyes has no formal ties to the United Nations, he was certainly a candidate to succeed him. It is the choice of Sir Alex, who has coached Everton FC 30 miles away for the past 11 years and added Ryan Giggs and Phil Neville to his Stalwarts coaching staff.
Mourinho and Luis Van Gaal (who arrived after Moyes) had combined to win 15 league titles and three Champions Leagues when they were appointed. They were brands, and they were proven; they were disruptive in the right sense, in the sense of a technological start. They were there to change the culture for the better. It’s no coincidence that after they were fired, they both did what superstar executives did when they came in with great pomp and circumstance to run the company, only to be shown the door a few years later: They complained of an unwillingness to change, a lack of support within the company and entrenched structures that prevented progress.
Error! The file name is not specified. Solskjaer, right, could be a full-time employee given his past at Man United, but that approach worked wonders at Real Madrid with Zidane. Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images.
Whether they are right or wrong has no place in this section, and in any case will be discussed endlessly elsewhere. The fact is that United did a 180 with Solskjaer, hiring bosses with weird CVs to tell the club what they didn’t necessarily want (but maybe needed) to hear. After the disintegrator comes the businessman.
That’s not an accusation, by the way. With three Champions League crowns to his name, Carlo Ancelotti says he is the man for the job. And that’s how Jan Aage Fjortoft, who has played with him on the international stage and has known him for a quarter of a century, described Solskjaer when we invited him to appear on Gab + Jules on Monday.
– Listening: Gab + Yules Podcast
Solskjaer’s public persona – sincere, polite and non-confrontational – is a business process. Behind the scenes, he can certainly crack the whip – no one clings to the coaches unless they play bad cop from time to time – but more than anyone else, he has crossed the party line.
Take United’s transfer activity. God knows he has something to complain about. Take the future of Paul Pogba (undecided) in the last 18 months of his contract, Jadon Sancho still playing at Borussia Dortmund, Bruno Fernandez arriving six months late, losing a centre-forward like Romelu Lukaku without a replacement by January (and then when the replacement arrives, it’s Odion Ighalo) … It’s a long list. But it’s not. And that fits the club (Ed Woodward and his friendly advisors and the Glazer family) perfectly.
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If you are cynical, and many were at the time, you could interpret the appointment of Solsky and the long term contract that followed as the club taking the easy way out. Liverpool and Manchester City were on the move; trying to close the gap quickly would have been costly, exhausting and probably futile. So you sell a few trophies on United DNA and hire a guy who everyone (or at least no one) likes, who is fully committed to the culture of the club and who won’t cause a headache or controversy.
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Craig Burley says Manchester United have surprised him so far, but he doesn’t see them as favourites for the title.
Is that too cynical? Maybe. But as Fjortoft himself has pointed out, Solskjaer is under no illusions about why he got the job and that it wasn’t his job as a coach that made it happen. More importantly, now that he’s here, it doesn’t matter why he was chosen: He will be promoted or demoted depending on the results, and since the results were mixed, he survived a one-week spin cycle. United DNA! #OleOut! The big leagues! Physical education teacher!
The best thing Solskjaer can do is move on. He’s not a coach with big ideas like Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola – if he is, we haven’t seen him – and he’s not as charismatic as Mourinho or Diego Simeone. He is a manager who uses simple but effective strategies when executed correctly, and tries to put his most talented players in situations where they can do the most damage. Zinedine Zidane has won three league titles and two La Liga titles with Real Madrid.
Of course Zidane had more charisma, a better managed club with a recent past and most importantly better players at his disposal. But that seems to be the model United are following Solskjaer, either because it is the path of least resistance after Van Gaal and Mourinho, or because they genuinely believe it is the best option. This model is based on sports capital and trust.
By bringing United back to the top, albeit briefly, Solskjaer took a big step forward, relieved the pressure on himself (and those who nominated him) and bought himself some time. It’s time to work and make a difference. It is one of the most valuable assets a manager can have.
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