MANCHESTER, England — What a difference a year makes for Manchester United. Ahead of Wednesday’s first anniversary of Jose Mourinho’s sacking and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s arrival, the club sits sixth in the Premier League and Mauricio Pochettino’s name continues to hover over Old Trafford as a potential saviour.
At first glance, the picture does not appear to have changed much since Mourinho was dismissed in the aftermath of a 3-1 defeat at Liverpool last December. But after home-grown forward Mason Greenwood salvaged a 1-1 draw against Everton on the day United’s matchday squad featured at least one academy product for the 4,000th consecutive game, Solskjaer has some vindication for his decision to overhaul the squad he inherited.
As Everton, under caretaker manager Duncan Ferguson, left Old Trafford with a deserved point, United ended the day on 25 points; one point fewer than when Mourinho was sacked. However, the upside of that statistic for Solskjaer is that his United are just four points adrift of the top four, as opposed to the 13-point gap that had opened up by the time his predecessor was told to clear his desk.
Solskjaer has taken charge of 54 games in all competitions, winning 28, losing 14 and drawing 12. Taken at face value, those numbers conjure up adjectives such as mediocre, average, or even unimpressive, but the reason the Norwegian is still in charge and not judged solely on results is because of changes he has made on and off the pitch.
Players have come and gone — underperforming big names shipped out and younger, less experienced ones brought in — and the mood around the club is more upbeat and positive than during the final days of the Mourinho era.
It has unquestionably been a bumpy ride, with stark highs like winning against the odds against Paris Saint-Germain, and lows that included a dismal 4-0 defeat at Everton just weeks later.
Back-to-back victories against Tottenham and Manchester City this month point to a corner having been turned, yet this draw again highlighted the work to be done before they can seriously class themselves as contenders for the big honours again. As Solskjaer admitted after the game, “This wasn’t really a backwards step, more of a stand-still.”
United have become a potent counter-attacking team due to the pace of Marcus Rashford, Daniel James and Jesse Lingard, and their ability to spring out of defence and hurt teams is why they have taken 13 points this season from games against the five teams above them in the Premier League.
But they have claimed just 12 points from 12 games against teams beneath them in the table and that is because Solskjaer’s team still does not have a Plan B.
When teams sit deep and deny space to counter, United quickly run out of ideas. They need a creative force — a fit Paul Pogba, perhaps — or a midfielder with the experience and ability to dictate the tempo of the game.
Such is the youthfulness and inexperience of this United side that the players are too keen to make a killer pass at every opportunity when, sometimes, having the nous to play it simple and maintain possession would be more sensible.
“It’s easy from the outside, sitting in stands,” Solskjaer said. “It was a bit of calm head [lacking] that you’ll get with a bit more experience. The young kids want to do it and want to do well, but we just didn’t have that one little bit of extra composure.”
The victories over Spurs and Man City dampened speculation that Solskjaer’s job would be under threat if the team dropped further out of top-four contention. It is accepted that there will be days like these against Everton, when inexperience counts against United, but there cannot be too many, especially because former Spurs manager Pochettino is available for a top job.
United have not come from behind to win a league game since beating Southampton in March, but after Greenwood cancelled out Victor Lindelof’s first-half own goal with 13 minutes left to play, Solskjaer’s team should have gone on to score a winner.
They still do not possess the necessary ruthlessness and that is another element that Solskjaer must address. One year into the job, though, United are in a better place under Solskjaer than when he arrived.
“I’ve really enjoyed it, I think we’re on the right track,” Solskjaer said about his 12 months in charge. “I’m looking forward to going into work tomorrow because these boys want to improve. We are, as a team and a group, going forward.”