Is Manchester United's uptick in form due to caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's magic wand or simply a product of the fixture list?
Manchester United has its fans believing again. Two weeks after Jose Mourinho was fired, the club is now enjoying its best run of the season, with four consecutive, convincing wins under the guidance of caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
United has outscored its four opponents–all bottom-half-of-the-table sides, it must be said–by a combined 14-3 scoreline, while Paul Pogba has responded to his lifeline at the club by scoring four goals in his last two games. The resurgence has United back in contention for the top four, as it finishes the festive season six points behind fourth-place Chelsea. Perhaps more importantly, though, it has restored self-belief and optimism at the club, which appeared to have diminished greatly as Mourinho's tenure reached its conclusion.
The club now faces one key question, as the fixture list gets increasingly more difficult in the coming weeks and months: Is this rejuvenation just temporary, or has the managerial swap truly triggered a change of fortune? We take a closer look:
CREDITOR: O.K. Luis, Mourinho was sacked just before the congested holiday schedule. Four straight wins later, with Solskjaer at the helm, Man United fans are feeling good again, and the club is just six points out of a top-four place. So, naturally, the question here is this: Is this Red Devil resurgence for real or a bit of a mirage?
ECHEGARAY: I think the best way to address Solskjaer's impact is by bringing up a prevalent notion that is all too real in the beautiful game: new blood energy. This is when the negative forces finally leave a club (Mourinho) and a new energy (in this case, the baby-faced assassin) comes in and like a proverbial spray of Febreze, it gives the club a new fresh, airy environment. It's quite literally what this team needed. Some changes were no-brainers (bringing Pogba back in, offering a more possession-friendly strategy), but you can clearly see the players are once again loving the game. And yes, so far, Solskjaer has made the right calls. But let's wait and see what happens next month and March, when they have to face PSG twice (in the Champions League last-16), Liverpool, Arsenal and Man City. So, if I'm a United fan, I'm cautiously optimistic, because as we all know, nothing good lasts forever.
CREDITOR: So there are a few ways to look at the uptick in form. The first is the cynical one and looking at the schedule. You mean to tell me Mourinho couldn't have gotten 12 points out of games at Cardiff, at home vs. Huddersfield and Bournemouth and at Newcastle? United arguably has had the easiest run of holiday fixtures in the Premier League, which certainly has helped Solskjaer hit the ground running. That said, there has been, like you say, a new energy about the club. It's how those points were secured, with an attack-first mentality and a fun way about the club. That Pogba has been reinstated in the starting lineup after Mourinho's exit and responded with four goals in the last two games surely is no coincidence.
ECHEGARAY: Exactly, I totally agree. It's not about the results, but how they are playing in the first place. But like you said, these matches against mid- to bottom-table opposition are hardly going to anoint Solskjaer as the master of tactics. But I think there's a lot to be said for a positive dressing room and by the end of Mourinho's tenure, it was clear he had lost his players. Solskjaer could have also entered this situation and said, 'Right, guys. We are doing it THIS way and no other way,' but instead he has allowed them to be free on the pitch and use the attack as the focal point. I think the big test away at Tottenham on Jan. 13 will be the first indicator on how this team can handle pressure.
Here's my question to you, though. What does OGS have to do in order to prove to (club executive vice chairman) Ed Woodward that he's the man for the job? Is a top-four finish enough?
CREDITOR: That's a good question. Restoring the feeling of joy around the club was his first task, and it was achieved rather quickly. Now, securing a top-four finish–which would require a masterful piece of work–should be the ultimate goal. This group isn't winning Champions League, and any secondary trophy wouldn't be enough to compensate for missing out on a UCL place for next season. If United finishes out of the top four and goes back into the Europa League circuit, it'd be going backwards by a couple of years. Solskjaer is a fan favorite, and if he has the results to back it up (and keep United's stock market shares on an upward trajectory #modernfootball), you'd think he'd get a shot. Woodward is going to have to shell out to land any of the other top candidates, whether they're unattached or not, and he's already paying Mourinho millions not to be there. Solskjaer would wind up being more cost-effective.
ECHEGARAY: Yes, 100%! We need to remember that Mourinho's exit was (and continues to be) expensive and Solskjaer is anything but. Here's the thing, though, I still think we are months away from seeing his Man United, the way he wants his side to play. I am also intrigued to see how he will fit Alexis Sanchez in the squad and if he brings in anyone in the transfer window, especially another center back.
There's no way I see his side beating PSG in the Champions League, but a solid performance over a two-legged encounter will really show what he's made of. But if you want to know if this Man United resurgence is for real, the answer comes at the beginning of March: away at PSG, away at Arsenal, at home to Man City. That, my friend, is when you'll know who the real Man United is.
CREDITOR: And that, barring any major signings this month, is when we'll see how United's imbalance is its undoing, in my opinion. It's an imperfect squad on paper and on the field. Mourinho wasn't wrong when he kept whining about it, never mind the fact that his purchases were the ones he lamented. Solskjaer has enough forward and midfield pieces to win the league games Man United should, but the back line isn't good or consistent enough and is susceptible to being exposed. Not by the Huddersfields and Cardiffs of the world, but by the top-tier teams Man United so desperately wants to be its peers again.
I highly doubt you'll see that happen this season, but removing Mourinho from the equation was quite obviously becoming a must (and arguably was months and months ago), and ridding his fingerprints from the club was the first step toward turning these positive results with an already-high-priced squad into a more consistent theme. It's wait-and-see for me, but the start to the post-Mourinho era could not have gone any better.