When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s eight-month tenure at Cardiff came to an end, managing Manchester United wasn’t in his future. He had built a fine reputation at Molde, winning back-to-back league titles in 2011 and 2012, and the Norwegian Cup in 2013. But the post-Malky Mackay mess in South Wales swallowed whatever major league ambitions he may have had and, having returned to Molde in 2015, he has remained in his native Norway ever since.
As before, Solskjaer owes this latest opportunity to dysfunction. Between now and the end of the season, United had a peculiar requirement. They needed healing properties borrowed from the Ferguson epoch, a personality reflexively associated with a better time and, perhaps most importantly, someone capable enough to be taken seriously, but not likely to be so successful as to confuse the further decisions which needs to be made in the summer.
When it’s time for Solskjaer to leave, he must go quietly. Even United’s executives, who have botched almost every football-related decision they’ve been tasked with making, will understand the potential damage of having to slay a club legend. To date, they’ve sacked unpopular men and transient figures, but never someone whose name still hangs from the Old Trafford rafters.
But in Solskjaer, they have a caretaker with no illusions over his long-term future: five months from now, he will return to Molde. He may harbour some remote ambition beyond that, late at night and in his more hopeful moments, but he will surely know that there will be nothing but a handshake and a return flight waiting for him once 2018-19 ends.
By that time, hopefully he’ll have restored some calm to Carrington. United’s Premier League position is already hopeless and the chances of them reaching and remaining in the top-four are almost already over. This, then, is a free-hit, a period which will occur in a vacuum and, uniquely, without any of the usual pressures which encroach upon the club at this time of year.
The autopsy of Jose Mourinho’s reign has many pages left to run, but it’s already known what it will reveal. Scared players, afraid to step out of line and dreading every training session. Individually, many have been victims of Mourinho’s roulette wheel criticism and so they can be forgiven their sense of relief and that spring in their step.
Solskjaer, to them, will be the laidback uncle. He will offer a break from the parental monotony and, most importantly, from Mourinho’s ceaseless fatalism. Because United’s football over the past few years has so often seemed a product of their dark environment, the benevolent metaphors are difficult to resist. The sun has come out, the ice has melted… the dragon has been slain and the villagers are free to go outside again. All a little poetic, perhaps, but it’s hard not to believe that a great tyranny has ended.
There may exist many clinical diagnoses for United’s poor form, but few of those explain why they have been quite as bad as they have. A more abstract interpretation, then, is to suggest that these players have been overloaded with tactical instruction and too often used to fight their manager’s agenda, rather than in ways which suited their personalities or attributes. Which means, of course, that Solskjaer’s apparent lame duck, substitute teacher role is – uniquely – really a great strength. Five months is not long enough to impart any grand design on this team and the transfer market, which consumed so much of Mourinho’s energy, will be none of his concern. His effect, in tandem with Mike Phelan, will be purely micro: how well does he communicate with the players, how enjoyable are his training sessions and, under him, how free is the team to be itself. Beyond that, he won’t be powerful enough to create any further contortions or stress.
That small scale is important, particularly given Mourinho’s increasingly naked obsession with his own legacy. The suspicion existed that everything he did or said, the teams he picked and the fights he started, were aimed at instructing a longer-term assessment. During his career’s second act, he evidently began to worry more about how he’d be viewed in ten or fifteen years time, than how he would be perceived week-to-week. In his mind, perhaps, lies the promise of some future point of ultimate vindication, a far off date when all of his strategies, conspiracies and neuroses are entirely validated. A great, 1000-word tome in which he is the hero of every anecdote.
That mentality has created an exhausting burden for the club to carry. It’s also another reason to welcome the light breeze of this Solskjaer interlude. He will bring simplicity: cones, team-sheets, shooting practices and relief from what had become an over-intellectualised trudge through the mud and rain. The defence will no longer be picked with the aim of making a vague point to the club’s directors and, if and when a forward misses a half-chance, there will be no comedic posturing in front of the television cameras. No rants about respect, no premeditated antics. It will be simple dominoes, not three-dimensional chess.
So Manchester United have, for once, got this decision entirely right. The next five months can be portrayed in many ways, most likely as a face-saving exercise during which respectability is the only serious aim, but they really offer the chance of recovery. The first-team squad has been relentlessly tweaked and manipulated, criticised and castigated, and so the demand was for someone who could oversee a managed period of convalescence and, ultimately, to emotionally soothe these players in readiness for whatever comes next.