The minutes and hours after Manchester United’s heroic last-gasp win over Paris Saint-Germain were dominated by one question; when would the team formalise the hiring of Ole Gunnar Solskjær as permanent manager?
United’s sweaty, breathless victory was everything the club aim to represent. The DNA of Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson’s old sides was surging through Marcus Rashford’s veins as he celebrated his last-minute winner with the travelling fans. When the other academy graduates jumped onto his shoulders, against that dark Parisian sky, creating another iconic image in the club’s storied history, it felt that United were finally United again.
If everything is indeed back in its right place at Old Trafford, then Solskjær deserves the bulk of the credit. He’s lifted the collective gloom around the team like the first joke told at a wake, smiles have returned and life is beginning to get back to usual.
Jose Mourinho sucked the life from his players, calling them out in public and shackling their natural attacking instincts with defensive formations and a negative mind-set, forcing them to play his way, not the ‘United way’. Solskjær re-energised the dressing-room, employing the full bingo card of buzzwords with talk of the ‘United Way’, never giving up, playing with wingers and Barcelona ’99.
The Norwegian will be appointed the next permanent manager of Manchester United, that is certain. In hiring Solskjær until the end of the season the club have given him enough rope to hang themselves. That isn’t to say he hasn’t earned it, he has, but they simply cannot avoid hiring him, the club legends want it, the fans want it and the players want it. Despite all the nostalgia the club are at a crossroads, will they buy into the sepia-toned memories that Solskjær brings or will they push forward and into the future by trying to lure Mauricio Pochettino to Old Trafford.
Tottenham’s manager is the most talented head coach currently outside of Europe’s truly elite clubs, he’s managed to build a team capable of challenging for the league title and beating the continent’s best, all whilst balancing the books. For all the talk of DNA surely it is the Argentine, with his belief in youth and dynamic attacking football, that best represents the building blocks of the club’s identity. If Pochettino represents a modern take on the football of Ferguson’s best teams then Solskjær is a tribute, a cover-band playing the Scot’s greatest hits.
Marcus Rashford’s resurgence to the levels that saw him heralded as one of Europe’s bright young stars, has been one of Solskjær’s finest accomplishments. When the draw with PSG was made it felt like the gulf between Rashford and Kylian Mbappé’s careers was as vast as that between the two clubs. Months later and Rashford’s reputation is now alongside that of the World Cup winner once more. However, let’s not forget, that under Pochettino’s guidance Harry Kane went from a Thursday night superstar, trotting out in meaningless Europa League games, into the world’s best number nine. Dele Alli, Harry Winks, Eric Dier and Kyle Walker all stand as testament to his ability to improve players and help them realise their potential.
When the quarterfinal draw is made there will be talk of whether Solskjær can lead his team to another Champions League title and more trips down memory lane with that toe poke against Bayern Munich in 1999. The club’s hierarchy need to take a close at the last English club to lift that famous trophy, Chelsea, and the mess that that followed the permanent appointment of Roberto Di Matteo. After guiding the Londoners to their first Champions League victory, and much talk of ‘glory years’ and understanding the inner workings of the club, the Italian took the job in June but was sacked before the end of November. As the instant impact of his arrival as a caretaker begun to wane, he was left needing to display his man-management skills and tactical nous, and not just rely on a feel-good factor. He was shown up to be lacking.
There’s a very real chance that Ole Gunnar Solskjær is the real deal, that he learned valuable lessons after his abject failure in charge of Cardiff, and that the same players who downed tools for Mourinho won’t do the same if and when troubles do set in. We’re going to find out the answer to this, the Glazer’s won’t want to annoy a fan base who are finally happy, especially when it’ll cost substantially less than extracting Pochettino from Spurs, allowing them to siphon more money from the club. There’s also a strong possibility that Solskjær is another Di Matteo, cult players turned managers who’ll be best remembered for goals in finals than prowess in the dugout.
It’s fun to remember our best moments from the past but United should be looking to form a new dynasty, another era comparable to Ferguson's finest, and not living in yesteryear’s past, something the fans often accuse rivals Liverpool of doing. Things from the past are rarely as good when you relive them as anybody who got back with an ex or revisiting their University haunts, will tell you. The choice is simple, keep trying to relive the halcyon days or forge a new path. No matter how hard it’ll be to say goodbye, United need to move on this summer.