Oleeeee Ole Ole Ole: How Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has breathed life back into Man United

It was the 26th of May, 1999. The venue was the Camp Nou in Barcelona, Spain. It was the Champions League final of the 1998–1999 season, a match fought between Manchester United and fellow football behemoth Bayern Munich.

With ten minutes to go until full time, United manager Sir Alex Ferguson brought Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, his famed baby-faced assassin, in off the bench, in search of a late equalizer.

All night, Munich had been dominant, to the tune of a 1–0 lead heading into the 90th minute. The referee held up the electronic sign indicating 3 minutes of stoppage time were to be played.

In the 91st minute, United keeper Peter Schmeichel ran up from his goal to join the attack for a corner kick. On the ensuing kick, United striker Teddy Sheringham scored the tying goal, two minutes from time.

Two minutes later, United had another corner kick, and as time was set to expire, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored the winning goal to cap one of the greatest comebacks in modern sports history.

“We have new superlatives now when the conversation turns to extraordinary deeds in sport. We can recall the courage of Ali, the cold-eyed winning instinct of Lester Piggott and Ian Botham’s innings at Headingly. But always we will come back to the night United beat Bayern Munich at the Nou Camp. It wasn’t a comeback — it swept beyond the limitations of that term. It was a resurrection. They won so dramatically that the history of this wondrous competition has a new and permanent asterisk against the line which records United’s 2–1 triumph. It must say:
‘Won in extraordinary circumstances — possibly divine.’”

-James Lawton, Daily Express

Image for post
Solskjaer scoring the winning goal vs Bayern Munich. PC: Janne on pinterest

With talk like that, it’s no wonder Solskjaer became a cult hero among the Manchester United fans. For years, he was a beloved member of the squad, a man renowned for his ability to score important goals off the bench.

The fans, even still to this day, adore him and sing songs of how he put the ball in the back of the Germans’ net. None of us, not even the best of us, can run away from father time, so eventually, in 2007, his time as a Manchester United player did come to an end.

A few years after his playing days were done, he got the job as manager of FC Molde in his home country of Norway. A few years later, he got the top job with English side Cardiff City, but he only lasted 8 months there before returning to again manage Molde.

Manchester United, meanwhile, had initial success after his departure, but once Sir Alex retired, struggled for any kind of success. David Moyes and Louis van Gaal had unsuccessfully managed the club, and current manager Jose Mourinho was failing quite miserably. It came as no surprise when he was sacked in December of 2018.

A little more surprising was the appointment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as the caretaker manager for the rest of the season. He had done excellent work as the boss in Norway, but had no track record of success in England, let alone with a club the size of United.

What has followed has been extraordinary.

Not only has he come in and banished all the bad feelings and negativity surrounding the club from the days of Jose Mourinho, but he has brought success. He has led United to 8 wins out of 8, a marked turn around from their form under the previous manager.

Perhaps more impressive than the culture change has been his display of tactical acumen. His first few victories felt like they were riding the momentum of the managerial change, but that all shifted in the match at Wembly against Tottenham.

He made adjustments from previous matches and set up his side ingeniously to win away at Spurs. One of the key adjustments he made was playing Jesse Lingard through the middle as a false 9 and playing Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial as twin strikers ahead of him.

Image for post
Jesse Lingard’s pressing of Harry Winks helped neutralize Tottenham

By having Lingard press Winks at every opportunity, he cut off one of Tottenham’s favorite avenues to build their attack. In the first half, Spurs didn’t have a single shot on goal. Setting United up in a diamond midfield was not expected by anyone and was a pure stroke of genius from the United manager.

His other change in tactics was how he set up Rashford and Martial in the attack. Instead of playing Rashford as a true no 9 and Martial as a winger, he had them set up in the channels between the centerback and fullback on their side of the pitch.

Image for post
Solskjaer set his forwards up to exploit the space left by the Spurs fullbacks.

One of Spurs’ attacking attributes is their use of their fullbacks high up the pitch. Solskjaer knew that Ben Davies and Kieran Trippier both loved to get forward and join in the attack.

So he took a massive gamble. He left both Rashford and Martial high up the pitch so that United could counter attack at every opportunity.

They scored the only goal of the match that way, with Paul Pogba playing a great through ball to Rashford, who got wrong side of the centerback and slotted home to give United the victory.

This was a massive victory for Manchester United. It not only showed that they can play with the big boys, but showed that Solskjaer may be more than just a temporary fix for this team.

Image for post
Marcus Rashford’s form improved significantly under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. PC: Dejan Review

Managing the biggest club in the world is no easy task. Solskjaer is passing every test with flying colors right now, but it remains to be seen if he can do enough to earn the job on a permanent basis.

He will probably need to finish in the top four of the Premier League this season, securing Champions League football for next season. Advancing past Paris Saint Germain in the round of 16 of this season’s Champions League wouldn’t hurt his case either.

This is no easy task considering United’s leaky defense and PSG’s vaunted attacking trio of Neymar, Cavani, and Mbappe. There is hope, though, as PSG are struggling with an injury crisis in midfield, and with Neymar being injured. Despite this, they are still heavy favorites.

The most important thing Solskjaer has done, though, is change the players mentality and belief in themselves and in their team. They truly believe every time they walk on to the pitch they are going to win.

That couldn’t be more opposite to how they felt and played under Mourinho, and could be the chief reason why they have a chance to win against the superior French side next month.

Nothing about playing or working for Manchester United is easy. The club is massive, the supporters outnumber those of any opposing side in the world, and the pressure to win never lets up. That is the reality. United haven’t won the league since 2013 and haven’t even played attractive football over the last few years.

This is why I say Solskjaer has brought back the real Manchester United. He has them believing. They are playing fun, attacking football again. And most importantly, they are winning again.

Your guess is as good as mine as to whether he will be named permanent manager at the end of the season, but in the mean time all we can do is enjoy the wonderful football and keep on singing “Oleeeeee Ole Ole Ole” to the man who’s brought United back.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store