Whether it’s at a football club or any other type of institution, it’s always extremely difficult, often bordering on impossible, to replace a figure that stood out as its main pillar of strength and prosperity for a long time.
Nobody can dispute the greatness of Sir Alex Ferguson and the importance of everything he has done for Manchester United between 1986 and 2013. His impressive trophy haul (13 league titles, five FA Cups, four League Cups, two Champions Leagues and one Cup Winners’ Cup) speaks volumes for itself, but one of the most notable accomplishments of the Scotsman at Old Trafford was also his ability to create winning teams year after year, even after parting ways with key players. There is always talk about a manager needing to prove himself in different leagues in order to warrant true greatness, but being that successful with the same club for over a quarter of a century seems perhaps the greater challenge.
It was never going to be easy to replace such a presence, and United can be said to have tried. They’ve tried with a coach who had proven himself at a “lesser” club in David Moyes, and he lasted less than a season. They tried with coaches who had proven themselves in different leagues, at different top clubs, in Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho. It didn’t work; at least not according to the extremely high standards expected – the legacy of the Ferguson era.
Following the sacking of Mourinho, it seems those expectations finally came down a little. The club opted for a slightly more sentimental approach in appointing their former forward Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for the job. But was it a sensible decision?
The Norwegian can’t be said to have proven himself as a manager. His previous exploits consist of Norwegian side Molde (where he started his playing career) and Cardiff City, where he got his marching orders following a last-place finish in 2014, relegation from the Premier League, and a poor start to the following season in the Championship. Solskjaer therefore represents as different an appointment to others that came after Ferguson as possible.
One of the more obvious downsides of such an appointment is surely the lack of ability to attract, or even keep, top players. Of all the names mentioned lately in terms of a possible departure, 31-year-old Juan Mata is the only one whom they’ve managed to convince to sign a contract extension. Meanwhile, the futures of David De Gea, Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku remain in the air; Ander Herrera has already left.
There has been a lot of talk about a summer overhaul of the squad. Many top names have been mentioned as potential arrivals – Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly, Real Madrid midfielder James Rodriguez, Atletico Madrid forward Antoine Griezmann, Ajax defender Matthijs de Ligt, Benfica wonderkid Joao Felix, Sporting midfield general Bruno Fernandes… But so far, all those links have turned out to have been fanciful thinking by the media reporting them, though they still apparently remain in the running for Fernandes. But the fact is, the only signing they’ve so far been able to wrap up was the one of winger Daniel James from Swansea. Not exactly a big-name acquisition.
That’s, however, not to say that the young Welshman won’t turn out to be a great bargain; he certainly has enough talent.
But one can’t help wondering, wouldn’t it have been a better option to have pursued and appointed, for example, Mauricio Pochettino. The Argentine had been linked with the job prior to Solskjaer’s appointment turning permanent, and amid the rumours, he spoke about the possibility of changing clubs more than once. Though his five-year spell with Tottenham Hotspur hasn’t seen a trophy so far, the obvious progress made under his command has earned him a large amount of respect from the football world and that, perhaps, would have been enough for some established high-quality players to seriously consider Old Trafford as their next place of work.
But the decision has been made, and it remains to be seen whether the club’s hierarchy will have enough patience with Solskjaer, patience required towards someone starting from scratch but expected to climb high.
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