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The Ole Gunnar Solskjaer conundrum: just how tactically astute is the Manchester United manager?

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Man United
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Fans are the cornerstone of football. For many, following their treasured team is an intrinsic part of who they are, and our present climate has confirmed, football without fans is simply not the same. Fans are as diverse and complex as the managers leading their teams through glory and defeat. Some shout their views from rooftops, some debate with their friends at the pub and some opt to silently ponder. All are as pertinent and inherent to the game as the next.

One man who truly appreciates the value of fans is Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. 

An idolised player, almost 69,000 fans attended his testimonial match – the then second-highest attendance in British history. After 126 United goals his words of farewell resonate now more than ever, on Sir Alex Ferguson he said, "I’m going into coaching. If I haven’t learnt from him, I can’t do coaching."

Opinions among Manchester United fans are split. While many sing "Ole’s at the Wheel", plenty believe he lacks the dynamic ability to engrain tactical excellence and elite coaching at a club spoiled with a record 20 league titles. An often-contested point is that he selects mentality over talent – especially when players like World Cup winner Paul Pogba warm the bench while Scott McTominay grafts on the pitch.

Does the the ‘baby-faced assassin’ who sealed the 1999 treble for the Red Devils after being nurtured by the most decorated manager to ever grace the game really not have a grip on how to beat a low block? Or has he simply been setting his team up with a counter-attacking threat because many of his players haven’t been blessed with creative wizardry?

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The common cliché "you're only as good as your last game" would set Ole Gunnar Solskjaer comfortably on a pedestal. Drawn into a ‘Champions League Group of Death,’ some had written off United before he could write the first name on the teamsheet. He silenced those critics by being the first manager to beat PSG at the Parc des Princes in the group stage since 2004. 

Quite the whirlwind for a man branded a "PE teacher" by segments of his club’s own fanbase. 

Nullifying generational talents like Kylian Mbappe and Brazil’s Neymar looked a walk in the park. Any manager who snuffs out the attack of the second most expensively assembled squad in Europe has his tactics spot on, particularly when missing key players.

Solskjaer’s first step was to instil trust and inspire motivation. Reiterating that those on the pitch would fight for the badge, calmly introducing Bruno Fernandes as captain and keeping his cards close to his chest regarding team selection. A masterstroke in that selection was a defensive trio of Axel Tuanzebe, Victor Lindelof and Luke Shaw. Tuanzebe hadn’t played since December but he recovered from injury under the watchful eye of a manager who dismissed claims the club urgently needed to sign a centre-back and perhaps we now know why. 

Many worried it would be a baptism of fire for Tuanzebe but the boss’ faith in the defensively astute 22-year-old paid off and he drenched any spark of a PSG attack. Playing with wing-backs proved a success against Premier League giants last season and whilst this formation showed respect for the world-class talents at PSG, the persistent attacking intent from Aaron Wan-Bissaka and debutant Alex Telles made clear Solskjaer was out to win.

Often criticised for his ability to change the course of a game, the United boss left Thomas Tuchel scratching his head when he introduced Paul Pogba with 67 minutes played. A formation shift ensued and Pogba drove the opposition defence back further, the winning goal was far from a counter-attack, the Frenchman made his assist to Marcus Rashford with nine PSG players behind the ball. The substitute finished the game having created the most chances.

PSG were outperformed in every area of the pitch, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer pulled off a tactical masterclass against a man many favoured to replace him. It’s hard to believe the same manager sat solemnly in his seat just nine days earlier as his team were humiliated by Tottenham Hotspur in a 6-1 defeat at home. 

Manchester United have won 10 successive away games in all competitions for the first time in their history. Against some of the finest clubs in the country Solskjaer has shown his aptitude: four wins over Chelsea, three over Manchester City and two over Spurs. It strikes a stark difference to the defeats to Crystal Palace, Burnley and Watford.

Creatively shrewd Bruno Fernandes has given Solskjaer the capacity to alter his attacking focus. The suggestion that his team rely on counter-attacks is obsolete when you consider they have been awarded 27 penalties since the beginning of last season. Those penalties are frequently conceded defending deft play in front of goal, not stopping a counter-attack.

Football is everything to fans and nothing without fans. Diverse opinion, passion for the game and love for clubs are what make the beautiful game so beautiful. Like the managers who lead their teams, sometimes fans get it right and sometimes they get it wrong. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has proven tactically sound against some of Europe’s biggest clubs, he’s fallen at hurdles he’d have expected to step over and he’s caused a debate in the footballing world that only he himself can settle.

Nora Calder is a writer and editor at The United Stand. Find more on Manchester United at @UnitedStandMUFC

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