19 Nice guys finish... fouth?
We don’t know where Manchester United are going to end up with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but I’m enjoying the ride more than under any previous United manager since Sir Alex.
It might turn out to be sleet rather than snow if the more experienced city or Liverpool pull away, but I’ve enjoyed seeing the team as part of a title race for the first time since 2013.
How the mighty have fallen? Well, yes – in case you didn’t notice, United did fall. But Solskjaer is doing a good job. Will it be sufficient? We don’t know, but most of his signings, decisions and comments are correct. He gets things wrong like any human, but he’s a decent man who wants what’s best for Manchester United rather than what’s best for him. There’s no angling for new contracts, deceit to his players. He does his job with a public smile.
We don’t know if he’ll become a great manager. When Carlos Queiroz arrived for his first day at Carrington and his boss told him that he alone was in charge of training, the Portuguese felt like he’d been handed the keys to a Ferrari with all the talent in front of him. Solskjaer too has incredible tools at his disposal, including the squad with the highest wage bill in the league and very probably the world soon, given Barca’s fire sale. The United-as-underdog line will only carry so far, but city and Liverpool finished 32 and 33 points ahead in the last two seasons, respectively. At the time of writing, United sit above Liverpool having knocked them out of the FA Cup.
There have been bumps and there will be many more. The team need to get beyond the 0-0 draws against the best. Conversely, United’s goals-against tally is too high. The strikers have yet to find true form as a three together, but the league position doesn’t lie: the comebacks have been exciting, the form excellent since Bruno arrived.
Solskjaer’s calm demeanour helps. I was fortunate to be in Paris in October when he walked into a media room full of French journalists after the game. I wanted to stand up and punch the air. He smiled, said hello, but remained completely calm. I was unfortunate to be in Istanbul in November when he walked into a media room with four or five Turkish journalists after the game. I was fuming and expected him to be the same. He smiled, said hello, but remained completely calm.
At a club where there’s so much noise around every result, this is what we need. If he listened to online Reds, he’d sell every player within a month and have none left. But he’s guiding United through the difficult times of a global pandemic, with a relentless schedule, where there will be no winter break in the sun which served the team so well last season.
His team are on target to get at least 10 more points than last season’s disappointing tally, which was still sufficient for United to finish third. Success in the FA Cup or Europa League will colour United’s season. If United keep getting stuck in semi-finals then it’ll be another indicator of the team and their mentality – and that won’t be sufficient.
Jose Mourinho got his Europa League tactics and plans spot-on and the thought of fans being at a final in May excites, even if it recedes with every lockdown. The club have done much right during the pandemic too, from serving the local community to retaining staff without using state support. United employs 1,000 people – it’s significant. There isn’t the uncertainty among staff that there is at Barca, where many were gutted when Lionel Messi decided to stay because no matter how much they loved him, they loved their jobs and family more.
But it’s all about results and, ultimately, United’s need to be better. Solskjaer said a year ago that he needed two or three top-class players to compete for the title. Did he get that in the summer transfer window? Our cover star Edinson Cavani may prove a sufficient fix for a year or two, but other signings were too young or, in the case of Alex Telles and Donny van de Beek, are so far squad players. With Dean Henderson a good addition and Paul Pogba playing well – in part due to Solskjaer’s continued calmness – the squad is better. Two more Brunoclass stars can make United the best. Solskjaer long wanted Erling Haaland, who’s currently up front for the sixth-best team in Germany. The economics are tight and state-funded (or acquired) competition in the shape of city, PSG or Chelsea only makes things harder, but United’s finances remain strong, the club’s appeal vast. United are not in a bad place right now.
Enjoy this issue, Andy
22 Alan Smith uws exclusive: a Yorkshireman in Orlando
29 Scouse Slammer
30 Munich, my dad and me
32 The Belgrade Derby A trip to Serbia to watch the eternal derby
40 Real Sociedad What to expect from La Real with journalist Alexandra Jonson
REGULARS 04-07 manUvia 4 Jim White 08-09 Guttersnipe 12 Keith Dewhurst 42 GAWI