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Why Louis van Gaal's Ole Gunnar Solskjaer criticism is unfair

The Dutch coach has suggested Man United’s style under the Norwegian was not especially dissimilar to Jose Mourinho’s.

Louis van Gaal (file pic).
Louis van Gaal (file pic).
Image: DPA/PA Images

WHEN YOU LOOK solely at the statistics, it is hard to argue with the appointment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as permanent Man United boss.

The club legend has won 14 and drawn two out of a possible 19 matches in charge, guiding them to victories over sides of the calibre of PSG, Tottenham and Arsenal.

In December, when Jose Mourinho stepped down after a dismal start to the campaign, the prospect of Champions League football looked highly unlikely.

Now, Man United, having gained more points in the Premier League than any other side since Solskjaer’s appointment, as they sit just two points behind fourth-place Arsenal and three behind Tottenham in third.

Solsjkaer has galvanised the club. Stars such as Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford in particular have been rejuvenated, having struggled at times under the previous management, after finally being selected in their favoured positions on a regular basis.

Yet there are still a few caveats regardless of the wave of enthusiasm that has greeted the appointment. Player morale can be fragile. Solskjaer has earned the players’ respect, but can he keep it?

It is the same group of individuals, after all, who seriously underperformed under Mourinho this season, having finished second last season, so it is hardly certain that they won’t revert to their old selves.

Notwithstanding their largely excellent form, there has been the odd worrying sign of late too.

They were well beaten by Wolves in the FA Cup earlier this month, while PSG totally outplayed them in the first leg of their Champions League game.

After the Wolves match, Solskjaer is understood to have accused the players of going back to their old Mourinho ways.

The Norwegian has also endured some luck along the way. The outcome of the Tottenham and PSG matches would have been different if their opponents had not been so wasteful with their finishing, while David de Gea also produced a stunning man-of-the-match performance in the former game.

Moreover, United have a recent track record of appointing managers who have failed to thrive ultimately.

David Moyes was the biggest disaster, given that he lasted less than a year in the job. Louis van Gaal at least got the club back into the Champions League and helped them win the 2016 FA Cup, but they never pushed on under his watch ultimately, failing to challenge for the title despite an array of big-money signings while being accused of “boring” football by some critics.

Jose Mourinho, despite his excellent track record, never looked a comfortable fit at Old Trafford. He did help them win the League Cup and Europa League during his first season in charge, before a runners-up finish in the next campaign, but third-season syndrome struck again for the ‘Special One,’ as the club collapsed and regressed towards the end of his reign.

The naysayers would suggest that the club have made an emotional appointment by handing the reins to a former player.

Solskjaer does not have an especially impressive past managerial track record. He failed at Cardiff, as the club were relegated, though it was always a tough ask, with the team in a bad place when he took over in January 2014. He left, having failed to prevent their relegation, just eight months later.

Meanwhile, Solskjaer’s only other coaching experience has come in the relative obscurity of Man United reserves and Norwegian outfit Molde.

Jose Mourinho File Photo Solskjaer replaced Jose Mourinho as manager in December. Source: Andrew Matthews

There are some people, such as Paul Ince, who feel United should have gone for acclaimed Spurs coach Mauricio Pochettino, despite Solsjaer’s successful start.

Yet perhaps the most curious criticism has come from Van Gaal.

“The coach after me [Mourinho] changed to park-the-bus tactics and played on the counter,” he told BBC Sport.

Now there is another coach who parks the bus and plays on the counter. The main difference between Mourinho and Solskjaer is that Solskjaer is winning.

“I am not there but there does look to be a change and the atmosphere seems to be better. It is also true that Solskjaer has changed Paul Pogba’s position and put him into an area where he is much more important.

“But the way Manchester United are playing now is not the way Ferguson played. It is defensive, counter-attacking football. If you like it, you like it. If you think it is more exciting than my boring attacking, OK. But it is not my truth.

Solskjaer has just lost twice [sic] and he has to manage that. It is very important that Manchester United qualifies for the Champions League, as it was when I was manager.

“But they can also win the Champions League because they play a defensive system and it is very difficult to beat them, which, whether you like it or not, is the result of Mourinho’s work.”

He continued: “I read something from Mourinho saying I only did that out of necessity [playing young players]. Not true. I created the necessity.

“Manchester United had over 30 players. I brought them back to 23. Then I had an open selection for the youth academy. I did that at every club. That is why a lot of young players have made their debuts with me.

“A lot of trainers, like Mourinho, never give youngsters a chance. Yes, five minutes. Solskjaer, 10 minutes. That is not a chance. A chance is a game.

“Too much experience is not good. Then you have an automatic pilot. You always need imagination and you cannot forget how inspiring young players can be.

“If you are not willing to trust young players, you are not suitable to be a manager of a club with a youth education.”

There is certainly some truth to what Van Gaal is saying. There has been a tendency among certain commentators to look at Solskjaer’s tenure with rose-tinted glasses.

Speaking after the PSG triumph, Rio Ferdinand said of United’s performance compared to those of other Ligue 1 clubs: “Just sitting back and defending, it don’t happen here!”

As ESPN’s Michael Cox pointed out, sitting back and defending for large parts of the game is exactly how United managed to beat PSG.

It was really no different to the typical cagey Jose Mourinho performance, such as the one earlier this season where they managed to pull off a surprise 2-1 win against Juventus in Turin.

But that analysis should not be taken as a criticism of Solskjaer. He was perceptive enough to realise that PSG had better players than the Red Devils, and so a degree of pragmatism was required.

Indeed, even under Alex Ferguson, United often played defensively in Europe. Towards the end of his tenure, the Scot was playing Phil Jones in midfield for some big games.

After a comprehensive 3-1 loss to Real Madrid in 2003, having gone with an attacking 4-4-1-1 selection, Ferguson knew the club could not afford to be so open against top sides in future.

The team’s 2008 Champions League success was largely due to an effective counter-attacking style spearheaded by the electric attacking trio of Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo, with Rooney and Tevez practically operating as wingers at times to compensate for the Portuguese star’s reluctance to put in a defensive shift.

People such as Van Gaal often speak of Ferguson now as if his teams were constantly all-out attack and nearly always dominated the opposition. The truth is more complicated. Solskjaer may be less conservative than Mourinho in certain respects, but he is undoubtedly willing to do what’s necessary to gain a victory, despite risking the wrath of the football purists. But then Ferguson was the same — he was happy to adapt in specific circumstances. Others, such as Van Gaal and Arsene Wenger, who are largely intent on sticking to their rigid ideals, often cannot sustain the level of success that is required to be a truly elite manager these days. Pep Guardiola, of course, is an exception, but it helps that unlike most coaches, he has the money to buy many of the world’s best players. 

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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