Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United revolution started before he accepted the job as caretaker manager at Old Trafford. After attending United’s Champions League match against Young Boys in November, the Norwegian bumped into Marcus Rashford in a corridor as he made his way out of the stadium.
United had won — just — thanks to Marouane Fellaini’s scrappy 90th-minute goal, but Rashford was disappointed with his performance, having missed a golden chance early in the first half. Solskjaer stopped for a brief chat, gave the 21-year-old some encouragement and told him he needed to “relax” next time he was in front of goal.
Six weeks later, Rashford and Solskjaer were together again at the Nad Al Sheba Sports complex in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, this time as player and coach. Solskjaer’s message to the striker had not changed: Relax when you get a chance, don’t snatch and guide the ball into the area of the goal you want to hit. A couple of days later, Rashford buried the only goal against Tottenham — a drilled finish across Hugo Lloris and into the bottom corner — to score for a third consecutive Premier League game for the first time in his career. He has four goals in five starts under Solskjaer, who has begun his own reign as manager with six wins from six games.
But it is not just Rashford’s form, or the mood for that matter, that has changed. Brighton’s visit to Old Trafford on Saturday will mark a month since Solskjaer was announced as United manager and, so far, his appointment has been an unmitigated success.
Rashford is flying. Paul Pogba is rejuvenated. Victor Lindelof finally looks like a £30 million defender. United are scoring and winning. The top four looks attainable, an unimaginable thought after Jose Mourinho’s United lost to Liverpool in early December. “Ole’s at the wheel, how good does it feel?” sang the travelling supporters in their corner of Wembley on Sunday.
The last United manager to win a league game at Tottenham was Sir Alex Ferguson in 2012, and it is Ferguson’s influence that runs through everything Solskjaer has done since his return to the club he represented as a player for 11 years between 1996 and 2007. The pair have been in daily contact and Solskjaer has visited Ferguson, still recovering from a brain hemorrhage suffered in May, at his home in Wilmslow.
Privately, Solskjaer has said his plan is to do the job in the way he remembers Ferguson filling the role, even down to the smallest details. Solskjaer, for example, sits on the back row of the dugout at Old Trafford just as Ferguson did, rather than taking the front-row seat occupied by Mourinho. Alexis Sanchez forgot Solskjaer’s preference after being substituted against Reading and had to be moved out of the manager’s seat.
Ferguson implemented a strict dress code before and after games; Solskjaer has adopted the same rules. When the United squad arrived at Wembley on Sunday, they did so in their Paul Smith-designed club suits rather than tracksuits. Players were told not to wear baseball caps, bobble hats or brightly coloured trainers. There were no bulky headphones on show as the players got off the coach, either, with the ones wishing to listen to music instead using the more discreet AirPods.
In fact, Solskjaer was so keen to make a point of dressing correctly for the role that he turned up to the United staff Christmas party on the day he arrived in Manchester wearing a club suit. The only problem: He didn’t have time to get fitted for one and had to make do with the jacket left behind by Daley Blind when he was sold to Ajax in the summer.
Ferguson was at Carrington to watch training before the victories over Bournemouth and Tottenham. Along with Mike Phelan — his former assistant and Solskjaer’s No.2 — Ferguson has been keen to stress what it means to represent United.
“The players have been reminded that it is a privilege to play for this club,” one source told ESPN FC.
Solskjaer and his staff are also treating the players like adults. During the training camp in Dubai, the manager gave the players permission to stay out — no curfew was set — but they were expected to know themselves what time to call it a night, and it was made clear that Solskjaer would “come down like a ton of bricks” on anyone who overstepped the line. No one risked the manager’s wrath.
Training, which is always focused on how United will hurt teams rather than the other way around, usually ends with a bit of fun, whether it’s a head-tennis competition or a small-sided tournament. On one particular day in Dubai, Solskjaer pitted a team of youngsters against the more experienced squad members. The group of Rashford, Diogo Dalot, Andreas Pereira, Scott McTominay, James Garner, Mason Greenwood, Angel Gomes and Tahith Chong won.
Yet Solskjaer’s reign hasn’t been all smiles, and even Ferguson’s famous hairdryer has made a reappearance. Despite being 2-0 up at half-time in the FA Cup tie against Reading, Solskjaer’s shouting and screaming could be heard in the corridor outside the home dressing room. The players noticed, however, that during his postmatch news conference, Solskjaer kept his criticism of the squad private and instead took responsibility for the poor performance, suggesting his team selection was the issue.
It is not just on the pitch that United have enjoyed a Solskjaer bounce, either. He is not the biggest name the club could have chosen to steady the ship, but United have still experienced increased website visits, app downloads, MUTV viewers and social media engagements since he was appointed. United had 55.7 million interactions on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter from Dec. 18-31, more than any other sports team.
“Clearly what happens on the pitch comes first at Manchester United and everyone at the club understands that,” a source told ESPN FC. “Ole’s arrival provided a massive surge of interest in the club’s own media channels globally.”
There has also been more demand for tickets. Winning does that, but a return to entertaining, attacking football does that, too.
Sources have told ESPN FC that despite Solskjaer’s short-term success, United are committed to a thorough search for their next permanent manager regardless of what happens on the pitch between now and the end of the season. Solskjaer has made no secret of his desire to be considered for the full-time gig (many players agree with him), and results like the one at Tottenham have only strengthened his case. However, sources have told ESPN FC that nothing United do on the pitch, whether it’s reaching the top four or winning a trophy, would guarantee Solskjaer the job.
United will look closely at Mauricio Pochettino, Massimiliano Allegri, Zinedine Zidane and Gareth Southgate before making a decision. But Solskjaer could not have done much more during the first month of his audition.