It was the perfect scenario. The arrival of a friendly face in the shape of the smiling Solskjaer was sure to appease restless, frustrated fans, as well as a miserable squad of players on the verge, perhaps even in the throes of, mutiny under the mind-numbingly meandering and misguided tactics of Mourinho.
The club gave themselves a much-needed breather. Solskjaer would surely bring back the feel-good factor whatever the results and the powers that be had until the summer to plan properly for the future.
At the time it made absolute sense, but things have changed dramatically in the interim for the once interim boss.
Even the most optimistic of United fans would struggle to have dreamt up what has occurred since. Solskjaer has surpassed all expectations.
It started off slow. Five straight wins against Cardiff, Huddersfield, Bournemouth, Newcastle and Reading appeared a routine enough opening set of fixtures.
But factor in things like the 5-1 culling of Cardiff was the first time United had scored that many goals in a match since the final one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s tenure – an unforgettable and highly dramatic 5-5 draw against West Brom on the final day of the 2012/13 season.
Last season, on Tyneside, an insipid United succumbed to a dismal 1-0 defeat to the Magpies – it was one of the worst performances of the Mourinho era. In October 2017, United were easily outfought against the tireless Terriers as Huddersfield earned a 2-1 league win.
Critics talked of more arduous tests to come, yet most United fans had trouble believing the perturbed Portuguese would have emerged from that initial period with five victories.
The bandwagon rolled on. Solskjaer and United passed their first big test as big six rivals Tottenham were beaten at Wembley – the presumed tactically inept Solskjaer earned praise, although the Teflon display of David De Gea also played a huge role in victory.
Critics were still not convinced, but then Brighton – a 3-2 defeat against the soaring Seagulls on the south coast may well have been Mourinho’s lowest ebb in the second game of the season – fell, before Arsenal were dismantled by another tactically impressive counter-attacking performance reminiscent of the old United in the FA Cup fourth round.
Three was the most amount of straight wins Mourinho’s men had mustered all season. The 3-1 win over the Gunners made it eight successive victories for Solskjaer – now firmly at the wheel.
Defeat finally arrived in his 12th game, first-half injuries to Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard saw United steer to a 2-0 home defeat against Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of their last 16 tie. It seemed the end of the European dream. Yet that result was effectively rendered inconsequential when Solskjaer enjoyed his finest hour to date – a 3-1 win in Paris unfathomably saw the new skipper navigate his side into the Champions League quarter-finals.
Up until that point, Solskjaer’s reign had provided plenty of positives. But Red Devils fans weren’t thinking too much about the future, they were just happy to be seeing adventurous, attacking football once again.
But a special night in the French capital as the rain teamed down suddenly evoked memories of old. This was the old United, the proper United.
Back-to-back defeats have since followed to Arsenal and Wolves – the Gunners subsequently leapfrogged United into the last Champions League spot while the Molineux loss saw them fail to reach the FA Cup semi-finals.
But United have acted and, as club football returns following the international break, United have their fourth permanent boss in five-and-a-half years.
Initial plans meant he wasn’t supposed to be in place for another three months, and that he would most likely be South American, not Scandinavian.
But 14 wins in 19 games is impressive and has seen United shift tact. It borders on miraculous given where United’s season was heading.
It gives the Norwegian a win rate of 73.7 per cent. To put that in context, he is the most successful manager in club history – and by some distance. Ferguson trails some way behind with a win percentage of 59.67.
Mourinho (58.33), Louis van Gaal (52.43) and David Moyes (52.94) all lie in his wake. His average points per game (2.46) is also far superior to Ferguson (2.16), Mourinho (1.89), Van Gaal (1.79), Ryan Giggs (1.75) and Moyes (1.68).
He is also way superior compared to his big six counterparts. Mauricio Pochettino’s win rate at Tottenham is 56.7 per cent, Jurgen Klopp’s at Liverpool 57.35 (although that stands significantly higher at 73.33 per cent in the Premier League this season), Unai Emery’s at Arsenal is 62.2, Maurizio Sarri 64 per cent at Chelsea with Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola closest to Solskjaer with a 71.6 per cent (up to 80 in the league this season) win rate.
Of course, this needs to be put in context. All three of Solskjaer’s predecessors won at least one trophy – yes we have to include Moyes’ Community Shield triumph. Van Gaal departed having delivered a maiden FA Cup in 12 years. Mourinho lifted the Community Shield, League Cup and a maiden Europa League title.
Also, Solskjaer has managed just 19 games, Pochettino has led Spurs in 263. But in that run, the skeptics have largely been silenced.
Former United midfield lynchpin Paul Ince seemed unimpressed with United’s revival under Solskjaer when he said in January: “Anyone could have gone in and done what he has done, it wasn’t a hard thing to do to give those players freedom and improve the mood.
“I think I could have gone in at the time. They needed someone to rest the ship, I think I could have done that.”
His words now live in infamy as Solskjaer has cleared hurdle after impressive hurdle.
Whereas in December it was sensible to bring in a familiar face and give him the reins until the summer, appointing Solskjaer permanently is now what makes the most sense.
One of the major things United have been unforgivably guilty of in the years since Ferguson retired is inaction. Especially when it comes to transfers.
Moyes bungled the pursuits of Cesc Fabregas and Toni Kroos in his first months and was left to pay over the odds for Marouane Fellaini.
Van Gaal excited United fans by attracting Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria to Manchester – their acquisitions proved false dawns and they were shortly on their way.
Mourinho’s appointment almost guaranteed silverware and, although he won three trophies in two-and-a-half years, he failed to deliver the coveted Premier League title, or even lay a glove on City – the 19-point margin to runners-up United last term was the largest in Premier League history.
Ole’s at the wheel, congrats boss! 👊🏽👏🏽 pic.twitter.com/HPw3zCVv8j— Chris Smalling (@ChrisSmalling) 28 March 2019
Despite silverware, he was the manager who perhaps did most of the damage. A highest league finish since Ferguson left last season was thrown into complete disarray as he self-destructed. He seemed to dismiss a title challenge in pre-season and a lack of backing in the transfer market lit the fuse for an explosive collapse that blew up just before Christmas.
Wait until the summer and United would risk falling further behind the likes of City and Liverpool. Were an appointment to be made in June, he would already be playing catch up. Not to mention, perceived top target – Pochettino – would be both a laborious, costly and potentially fruitless pursuit.
The way the club has gone about it, Solskjaer now has every chance to continue his good work. While the possibility of silverware seems remote – another miracle must surely be conjured to get past Barcelona in the last eight of the Champions League – he has injected hope and belief back into this squad.
The players know now who will be in charge next season – which could prove pivotal in the future of talisman Paul Pogba, who despite being happier, remains a target for Real Madrid.
Solskjaer can now plan for pre-season, an assault on the transfer market and turning United into Premier League contenders next year instead of preparing for a return to the Eliteserien with Molde.
It’s a fearless and forthright statement of intent by United and it could reverse years of fragility and fumbling around.
A move that has seemed inevitable for weeks was made official on Thursday morning as the 46-year-old fans’ favourite saw his caretaker role turn into a full-time post.
Solskjaer has been rewarded with a three-year deal after bringing smiles and a swagger back to a United side that had been toiling under divisive former manager Jose Mourinho.
A remarkable run of 14 wins from 19 games has resulted in the feel-good factor returning to Old Trafford and the club back in top-four contention after being 11 points off the pace when the Portuguese was sacked 100 days ago.
“I’m just going to be myself as I’ve always been,” 1999 treble hero Solskjaer said at his unveiling.
“I know the expectations of the club, the traditions of the club, the history we’ve got. Of course, I want to be successful, of course I want to lift trophies, but I can’t wait to get onto the job, onto the challenge of improving this great bunch of players because it’s a squad full of potential.
Ole’s at the wheel! We can confirm that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been appointed as #MUFC manager.— Manchester United (@ManUtd) 28 March 2019
“I worked with them – or we have as a staff – for three months and the improvement is there to be seen. We know there’s so much more to come from them, we can see so much more improvement.
“We see them every single day in training, the attitude has been fantastic but we know we’ve got a way to go. But lifting a trophy, I am sure, will be a success.”
The jaw-dropping Champions League win at Paris Saint-Germain even keeps hopes of a trophy alive this season.
“We’ve got a chance – of course we have,” Solskjaer said with a smile as the quarter-final against Barcelona looms large.
“It’s going to be a tough one, a mountain to climb but we’ve climbed a few mountains before.”
Solskjaer was typically cheery throughout a packed press conference at Old Trafford but struck a more authoritative tone when addressing the media.
The Norwegian knows United as well as anyone after representing the club 366 times and coaching the reserve team, and he struck the right tone between short-term success and long-term requirements.
“To lift the Premier League trophy again is what we expect, what we’re used to, what we have done so many times,” said Solskjaer, whose former club Molde are understood to have received compensation as a goodwill gesture.
“We can’t wait for too many years, but we have to take it step by step. It’s not like it’s going to happen overnight, catching 15, 16, 17 points or whatever we are behind the top teams now.”
Solskjaer has discussed summer transfer plans with executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward and hopes to have signings in place before pre-season gets under way with a July trip to Australia.
Furthermore, he has opened the exit door to anyone that is not ready to fight each and every game for United.
“Players who get complacent never last at this club anyway,” he said. “Managers… I’m the same. I can’t rest on ‘Well, I’ve got a job’. That’s not me. We’re looking forward, we’ve got to work harder.
“I’ve got some targets. I would want a Man United team that’s one of the hardest working teams in the league, the fittest teams in the league and that will then bring results I think the players know my expectations on the future.”
For now, though, Solskjaer can enjoy the fruits of the last three months’ labour.
Sir Alex Ferguson was one of the first people he spoke to after being approached about the full-time role, while he intends to keep the same backroom team together as assistant Mike Phelan speaks to the club.
Optimism and positivity were palpable throughout his unveiling, with the excitement clear ahead of his first permanent match in charge against Watford on Saturday.
Asked if he could believe he would be in this position three months ago, Solskjaer said: “Of course, because it is happening.
“I’ve dreamt about it and maybe visualised it myself, as I did as a player. We’ve had three months and now we’re here permanent.
“The players have responded fantastically to us coming in and we’re just looking forward to working together, to improve the players and the club.”
Solskjaer has revealed he and his family plan to live in the house he bought in Cheshire 12 years ago after signing a three-year contract as United boss.
The Norwegian, according to reports, has been renting out the house to Netherlands defender Van Dijk, a cornerstone of United’s great rivals who are battling Manchester City for the Premier League title.
“We’ve really enjoyed the last eight years living in Norway,” former United striker Solskjaer said in an interview with MUTV.
“It’s going to be a change for them but we’re looking forward to it.
“The six months that we agreed on (when initially taking the job on until the end of the season) as a family we agreed to do it separately as there was no need to move them over. That’s gone now. Now we’re moving together.
“We built a house, or I started it in 2007, but finally maybe in 2019 we can move into it – that’s long planning.”
Solskjaer, who has overseen 14 wins from his 19 games in caretaker charge, put the five-bedroom property on the market after he returned to Norway to manage Molde.
But he failed to find a buyer for his house, and reportedly rented it out to Van Dijk – meaning Solskjaer has had to stay at the Lowry Hotel in the city centre.
The Lowry was where Solskjaer’s predecessor Jose Mourinho lived during his two-and-a-half years in Manchester before his dismissal in December.
Solskjaer’s 3.4 acre property is said to include a media room, a utility room, a store room/AV room and a first-floor study area.
It also has a master bedroom with a dressing room and en-suite bathroom, four further bedrooms, a garage, a brick outbuilding with a pool room, a dark room and a gym.
In addition, there is also an extensive rear garden and a front paddock with stables.