Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s had success at Manchester United, but it’s not the success the club expects from its manager.
So when the Red Devils boss quickly got to transfer market talk after United’s loss to Villarreal in the Europa League Final, there was more than a little, “Really?” running through some critical minds.
“We are here now, we need to do better, we need to work better, work harder, cleverer,” Solskjaer said. “But as I said two or three players to strengthen the starting XI and the squad all together is important for us to go even further. Because I’m sure our contenders or challengers will also want to improve and we want to improve as much as we can.”
United was close to a title on Wednesday, and Marcus Rashford missed a tight chance that could’ve given them a 2-1 lead in regulation before the match went to extra time and, eventually, ill-fated penalty kicks.
Unai Emery, a master of finals, used five of his six subs between the 60th and 88th minutes, and Villarreal’s new unit got its act together in the final 15 minutes of extra time.
Meanwhile, Solskjaer made one sub in the 100th minute and five more after the 113th minute. There was fear there. He took out Paul Pogba rather than putting him in an advanced role. He put in Fred for Mason Greenwood and left Donny van de Beek and Amad Diallo on the bench.
Yes, penalties are a tough way to decide a trophy. But Solskjaer did not go for it. At all.
Edinson Cavani and Bruno Fernandes were brought in under his watch, and so were Alex Telles, Daniel James, and unused Van de Beek and Amad.
And these decisions are more than transfers. It turns out that Jesse Lingard can still play. Romelu Lukaku is also very good, and Chris Smalling fits that bill too.
Yes, Harry Maguire was hurt against Villarreal but it wasn’t defending that killed United’s hopes of a trophy. They weren’t brave. Solskjaer defenders will say they weren’t invested, weren’t United through and through.
But Solskjaer was timid in a lot of big games, perhaps traumatized by a 6-1 mashing at the hands of Jose Mourinho’s Spurs that led to a run of 0-0, 0-1, 0-0, 0-0, 0-0, 0-0, against traditional top six rivals before a March win over Man City.
So perhaps shame on us for believing that that win was the tipping point for Solskjaer’s bravery, as he beat Spurs 3-1 in April. He then danced past Real Sociedad and beat AC Milan, following it up by dominating Granada and bashing Roma.
But Emery got him on Wednesday, and the ex-Arsenal boss boasts a 3W-1D-2L record against Solskjaer. Leicester’s Brendan Rodgers the same. Jurgen Klopp is 2W-3D-1L against the Norwegian. Mikel Arteta’s unbeaten in three versus OGS.
Solskjaer is by no means terrible at his job nor tactics. He’s done well against Pep Guardiola and has a 5-0 record against celebrated underdog Graham Potter. Carlo Ancelotti’s yet to beat him and David Moyes and Frank Lampard largely couldn’t hang.
But on a big stage, in big games, Solskjaer is still growing into the big shoes. He’s going to keep learning but will United succeed through that growing wisdom or do we need to just accept that he’s more of a Zinedine Zidane than a Jose Mourinho? Is he an ego massager and reputation defender who uses his and his club’s aura to drive the bus? Is he better for the Jims and Joes than the x’s and o’s?
In that case, sure: Keep buying guys until some combination delivers something shiny. They’ve bought young a la Real and the model could work. But it’s a little rich, pun intended, to simply say United couldn’t find a way through Villarreal because of personnel.
But the transfer talk also nods to fan unrest with the Glazers and Solskjaer is a canny operator in the media. But remember, he knows that second place and a bunch of “almosts” in cup play (while bombing out of the Champions League at the group stage) cannot be good enough when his rallying cry for players and fans is always about the mystique of the club.
“Second in the league, probably no one expected us to be second in the league after the start we had, after the lack of pre-season we had,” he said. “The boys have been really, really good but just came up short tonight, unfortunately. That’s penalties, we could have been sat here saying a successful season after the same game. But trophies matter and that’s what matters at this club. No, is the short answer.”
Well, if trophies matter, Ole, Wednesday was a big failure in things that matter — even without Maguire and on the lottery of penalties.