Bringing back Eric Bailly, finally finding a role for Paul Pogba and lifting spirit in the dressing room… here’s how Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took Manchester United from no-hopers to table toppers
- In December, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was the bookies’ favourite to be sacked first
- But Manchester United have picked up 29 points from their last 11 league games
- United go to bitter rivals Liverpool on Sunday on top of the Premier League table
- Sportsmail looks at the crucial areas Solskjaer fixed to get United back on top
Only a month ago, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was the bookmakers’ favourite to become the first Premier League managerial casualty of the season, ahead of the doomed Slaven Bilic and a winless Chris Wilder.
It was a measure of the mounting problems at Manchester United, and doubts over Solskjaer’s ability to solve them, in the wake of a depressing defeat by RB Leipzig in Germany.
His side were out of the Champions League and facing a run of 10 fixtures in 32 days that threatened to overwhelm the amiable Norwegian.
It has been a remarkable turnaround at Manchester United for manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Solskjaer has been involved in more than his fair share of comebacks as a player and manager at United, but even by his standards it has been a remarkable turnaround. Those 10 games have brought seven wins, two draws and just one defeat — to Manchester City in the Carabao Cup.
United go to bitter rivals Liverpool on Sunday on top of the table for the first time at this stage of the season since Sir Alex Ferguson retired eight years ago. They have picked up 29 points from their last 11 games in the League.
So how has a manager who looked to be on his last legs bounced back to lead the title race?
UP AND RUNNING
Solskjaer always said the start of this season was going to be difficult, even more so for United than their Premier League rivals.
They kicked off a week late after playing in the Europa League in August and had just one friendly against Aston Villa.
The fallout from Harry Maguire’s arrest on Mykonos was an unwanted distraction for Solskjaer, who also became embroiled in Mason Greenwood’s expulsion from the England squad.
The fallout from Harry Maguire’s arrest on Mykonos was an unwanted distraction for Solskjaer
United lost three of their first four League games at home — including an opening defeat by Crystal Palace and a 6-1 humiliation at the hands of Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham — as they stumbled out of the blocks.
But Solskjaer’s side are into their stride approaching the halfway point of the season, reaching a level of consistency in performances and results that has propelled them up the table from 15th place in early November.
OLE’S AT THE WHEEL
Club sources say United’s refusal to panic and sack Solskjaer has added to a sense of stability around the club that has not been felt since Ferguson was in charge.
Having backed their young boss through a rollercoaster couple of years, United are determined to give him every opportunity to succeed.
After going through four managers in five and a half years, that has affected the mood in the camp positively.
Solskjaer has steadied the ship and certainly deserves credit for the way he has rotated his squad over the busy period.
He got his team selection spot-on in matching Burnley’s physicality on Tuesday, and will make more changes for Liverpool.
No one is under any illusions that Paul Pogba’s situation at Old Trafford is resolved.
The Frenchman will enter the final year of his contract this summer and his agent Mino Raiola has offered little hope of the player signing a new one.
Paul Pogba is now producing the goods on the pitch, which has not always been the case
Pogba, United’s £89million record signing, was effective from a deeper role against Burnley
At least Pogba is producing the goods on the pitch, which has not always been the case, weighing in with crucial goals at West Ham and Burnley.
Solskjaer has got more out of Pogba by playing him on the left side of a 4-2-3-1 formation, but United’s £89million record signing was still effective from a deeper role on Tuesday night, when United went top of the table with victory at Turf Moor.
ONE FOR ALL
There is a togetherness and mental robustness to this United squad that reminds Solskjaer of the Ferguson era. Inner justice, he called it earlier this week.
The 47-year-old has worked hard to improve the chemistry of the dressing room.
Players such as Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku were shipped out and replaced with the likes of Bruno Fernandes and Maguire.
Bruno Fernandes (left), in particular, has been a big catalyst for improvement at United
Fernandes, in particular, has been a catalyst for improvement at United in his first year at the club and has a fiercely competitive nature that rubs off on team-mates.
The Portugal star is said to have sulked for days after United lost to City last week, even more so because he wasn’t able to get it out of his system by playing against Watford in the FA Cup.
The team spirit and winning mentality fostered among this United squad have helped them recover from the difficult start. It has been evident in their ability to win ugly — a key trait in any title contender — with single-goal margins against Burnley, Aston Villa, Wolves and Sheffield United.
The return of Eric Bailly has been a big positive.
In six games with the combative Ivorian in central defence, United have won five and drawn once, conceding three goals. His last-minute block against Villa was as good as a goal, and Bailly was at it again at Burnley.
Maguire looks more comfortable alongside Bailly, although Solskjaer may opt for a back three against Liverpool.
The return of Eric Bailly (left) has been a big positive, with Maguire comfortable alongside him
Despite Bailly’s rather fearsome demeanour on the pitch, he is one of the more outgoing members of this United squad and has amused his team-mates in the past month by turning up for training in shorts and flip-flops despite the sub-zero temperatures. He and Nemanja Matic, both multilingual, are seen as key figures in uniting the dressing room.
For instance, Bailly was in contact with new signing Amad Diallo before his fellow Ivorian arrived at the club on Wednesday, while Matic acts as translator for the shy Edinson Cavani.
Many Premier League clubs have struggled with Covid issues, but United have stayed relatively virus-free up to now.
Pogba, Alex Telles and Facundo Pellistri are known to have tested positive, but United have benefited from a healthy and largely fit squad which has enabled Solskjaer to rotate and keep his players fresh.
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