Solskjær’s United loses three semifinals
Unbeaten run of 14 games qualifies Red Devils for Champions League
JO CHRISTIAN WELDINGH
Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s Manchester United’s season is over after losing 2-1 to Spanish team Sevilla in the Europa League semifinal Aug. 16. The Norwegian manager has completed his first full season as manager of the club he once played for, still without a trophy to his name. That might be a disappointment to some, but it does not take away from the significant progress the Red Devils made throughout the 2019-20 season.
The team finished third in the Premier League, only beaten by Liverpool and Manchester City, and it secured a place in next season’s Champions League, which might have been the main objective at the start of the 2019-20 campaign. At Old Trafford, Manchester United’s home grounds, winning trophies is important. Solskjær has probably been desperate to get his hands on one, and his squad came close by reaching the semifinal in Carabao Cup, Emirates FA Cup, and Europa League.
The start of the yearlong season was not promising, however. Solskjær oversaw United’s worst start to a Premier League season in over 30 years. The squad struggled with breaking down presumably weaker teams and was plagued by injuries that kept key players like Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba, and Anthony Martial on the sidelines. After losing 0-2 to Burnley at Old Trafford January 22, United were placed fifth, trailing Chelsea in fourth by six points. After 18 games, the Red Devils were in 18th place, 14 points behind Leicester.
Places 1-4 secure qualification to the Champions League. A big portion of United’s fans and most pundits agreed that Solskjær was out of his depth and needed to be replaced with someone more experienced.
Then something changed. After the Burnley game, United signed Portuguese playmaker Bruno Fernandes from Sporting Lisbon and never looked back. The Portuguese national hit the ground running, and his unpredictable style of play, genius passes, and set-piece skills added an extra spark to the squad’s attacking capabilities. The arrival of Fernandes, along with Martial, Rashford, and Pogba’s return from injury, resulted in a 14-game unbeaten run in the league and third place.
“Since February, we’ve been fantastic,” Solskjær was quoted as saying on the Manchester United’s website after the defeat against Sevilla. “Then again, it is disappointing to go out. We have come quite a distance from where we were in February. It is quite exciting to work with these boys, but then again you could see how tired they were at the end—tired legs and tired minds.
“So, we will need the break we can have now and go again very soon,” he said, referring to the fact that the team only gets one month to prepare for next season, due to the coronavirus shutdown and restart to complete this season.
Solskjær has been outspoken about his goal of rebuilding Manchester United to its former glory. As the most successful English soccer club of all time, Manchester United has won the Premier League trophy 13 out of a possible 27 times, all under the management of Sir Alex Ferguson. Since Ferguson retired, a second place in 2017-18 season is their highest league finish. Solskjær, who played under Ferguson and sees him as a mentor, has modeled his managerial career in Ferguson’s image, giving young, homegrown players chances where other managers would rather go for expensive new signings. Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams are examples of homegrown players who have claimed a place in the starting 11 this year.
Even though United made significant progress this year, they still need to invest in new players to bridge the gap up to Liverpool and Manchester City. Liverpool won the league with 99 points, City placed second with 81 points, while United ended up in third with 66 points. They needed a 2-0 win over Leicester in the regular season finale on July 26, to jump over Chelsea to the third spot and the Champions League berth.
United’s best 11 can compete with the best teams in Europe, but their bench is lacking. Experts predict that they need at least three to four good signings to be a serious title contender next season.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 4, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.