[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hirty-two points from 36. It’s a remarkable tally, Ole’s remarkable tally. Then there was that night in Paris where Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, this time as a coach, once again added to United’s rich European tapestry of successes. The turnaround overseen by Solskjaer since he took on José Mourinho’s wreckage has been nothing short of astounding. United are a club that believes again.
The Norwegian has answered most questions thrown his way in just a few short weeks in the job. Victory over PSG was the latest example, but before that United’s draw with Liverpool offered Ole a different kind of test. Not many top-flight managers have been forced to make three injury-enforced substitutions before half-time, but Solskjaer and his assistant Mike Phelan reorganized efficiently and rendered Liverpool’s much-heralded attack toothless.
Three days later, Ole’s team found a way to another three points at Crystal Palace, with United making light of an injury crisis to secure an eighth away win of the season. As birthday treats go, the result at Selhurst Park was a nice present.
Southampton posed a different challenge at Old Trafford, but once again Ole found a solution, with Romelu Lukaku setting aside a profligate first half performance to deliver a match winning brace in the second period. That’s to mention little of Andreas Pereira’s blockbuster strike. Solskjaer’s team obdurately refuses to lose.
In probably his biggest challenge as a manager, Solskjaer didn’t shirk in Paris and masterminded one of the most unlikely comebacks in United’s European history. Where some would have written the match off, the Norwegian viewed the challenge as a mountain to climb. Scale it he did.
Such has been United’s progress under the Norwegian that the hierarchy might feel justified in removing ‘interim’ from his title sooner rather than the summer deadline Ed Woodward has set.
If anything, the United Board can believe that they have good, attainable options to look at with respect to prospective candidates. What Ole has also done, unwittingly perhaps, is shift the conversation about who should replace Mourinho permanently.
There are plenty ready to argue his case, while others – a shrinking crowd, perhaps – are happy to push the credentials of Mauricio Pochettino. This change in focus will no doubt be met with a nod of approval by Woodward. It has given him breathing room to concentrate on a much-needed overhaul of United’s sporting structure.
The obvious question is whether the executive vice-chairman can be trusted to do so?
In his recent article, Andy Mitten noted that the remit of United’s proposed Director of Football/Technical Director/Sporting Director has been ever-changing. Initially, it was going to be a functionally administrative role, but there is now recognition that whomever is appointed will need to be involved with player acquisition as well; an area that has been of keen interest to Woodward.
Several names have been linked with the role in recent months, such as Paul Mitchell, Edwin van der Sar and Andrea Berta. The possibility of promoting a figure from within Old Trafford has been mooted too, but it shouldn’t be underestimated just how difficult integrating a full-time director of football will be for Woodward and company.
On one hand, Woodward is under pressure to bring in someone quickly, for them to get a feel for the club and prepare for the summer window. On the other, Woodward needs to make sure that he gets the structure and appointment right.
If Woodward does bring in a sporting director before the end of the season, there’s always the danger that the new man’s presence could be disruptive given Solskjaer’s popularity. Any turbulence would be blamed on the new recruit. If a decision has already been made to offer Ole the manager’s job, then a new sporting director will have to work with someone they’ve had no say in hiring. That may be ok, but it’s not an ideal scenario, especially if the vision of coach and director differ on how to take the club forward. Effectively, Woodward would need to recruit a director to fit with Solskjaer.
Alternatively, if the decision to bring someone in is delayed until the end of the season the new sporting director will have little time to identify targets, let alone find a new head coach. If anything, this just goes to show there’s never going to be an ideal time to restructure and Ole’s success may have complicated things a little.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Solskjaer has been successful in bringing back club values of yesteryear. He has also given Woodward a template to follow and one that any sporting director of note could adopt.[/blockquote]
At the same time, if Solskjaer had not healed the wounds at the club so quickly the magnifying glass would be hovering over Woodward, with the press and fans alike studying his every move.
United’s recent investor call added a some colour, but little detail. “Looking at our structures and how we should strengthen,” noted Woodward, “It is something we are doing on a continual basis. We are looking to make it stronger.”
Better late than never, so the saying goes, but United have reached or more pertinently gone beyond the point where structural reform was required. If there has been one constant in the post-Ferguson era it’s been an inability to let any kind of football principle take hold at the club. This has allowed for a disconnect to develop, one that has seen players of differing profiles recruited and an unbalanced squad formed. Solskjaer has been successful not only in bringing back club values of yesteryear, but he has given Woodward a template to follow and one that any sporting director of note could adopt.
That breathing room offers Woodward the unique opportunity bring United into the 21st century on the sporting front and could potentially cement an unlikely legacy should this opportunity be seized. From a commercial perspective, Woodward’s star shines bright, but seemingly at the expense of any long-term football vision. Solskjaer’s remarkable turnaround has created the chance to set things right. Woodward could eventually be recognized for more than just profits, briefings and a longing for shiny trinkets.
It bears repeating that Solskjaer has provided Woodward the space to make a sensible, considered decision. It is one that will in turn change the club’s sporting direction for the foreseeable future.
Ever since Woodward sacked David Moyes in the spring of 2014, the club has been on a reactive footing, never quite catching up. Regardless of whether Solskjaer stays or goes, Woodward should be thanking the Norwegian for enabling United the room to take a proactive football position for once.
That’s a gift that shouldn’t be taken lightly.