Manchester United‘s third-choice goalkeeper Lee Grant has revealed manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s finishing skills remain just as deadly as they were in his playing days – enough to give the shot-stopper a thorough workout alongside Romelu Lukaku and Paul Pogba.
Solskjaer played for United from 1996 to 2007, scoring 91 goals in 235 appearances, including, most famously, the winning goal as a substitute in the 1999 Champions League final. His was the second of two injury-time strikes that saw United overturn a 1-0 deficit against Bayern Munich in the dying minutes to seal an unprecedented treble, having already won the Premier League and FA Cup that season.
That moment etched Solskjaer’s name into the club’s history, and when he returned in December to take over as interim manager following the sacking of Jose Mourinho, it was a widely popular appointment.
The club legend oversaw a run of 11 wins in his first 14 games before a disastrous end to the season in which United won just two of their final 12 fixtures, but Grant said that amidst Solskjaer’s up-and-down start to life in charge, his appetite to be involved in training remained the same.
“We had a shooting session and I was doing some one-on-one work with Romelu and Paul,” Grant told United’s official website.
“The manager came over and I could see he was limbering up in the corner of my eye.
“He got involved and he was still pretty deadly, I have to be honest.
“He had some bad luck because he kept hitting the same post in the same spot. But the touch was there and the instinct was still there.”
Solskjaer will don the jersey in which he became famous one more time this weekend, as the former Norway striker will play in a United Legends side that will take on a Bayern Legends side at Old Trafford on Sunday, the 20-year anniversary of the treble triumph. And Grant says fans can expect a vintage display from the club’s current manager.
“He is very, very clinical still,” said Grant. “He did well and I am looking forward to seeing that game on Sunday.”
Grant, who joined from Stoke City last summer, is a lifelong United fan, and says he was thrilled by the opportunity to work under the club icon, who previously managed United’s reserves side.
“I hadn’t worked under Ole before, because I wasn’t around at the club when he was previously here, either coaching younger guys or working with the first team as a striker coach.
“This was a chance to meet one of my heroes and it was an interesting moment.
“It was slightly strange but very quickly you forget all of that and think, ‘he’s the boss’. You play it cool.”
Ex-Red Devils defender Paul Parker believes Mourinho’s failure to understand the nature of the job of managing United, more than disputes with his squad or the club’s board, was the reason he ended up being sacked last December after two-and-a-half years in charge.
“He’s probably never going to be a ‘nice guy’ like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is, but some people in football are too scared to talk about him for fear of the consequences,” Parker told Eurosport.
“Mourinho never smiled, which doesn’t make any sense. He should have been happy – he was in a job that he’d always wanted, one of the most prestigious jobs in the world at one of the biggest clubs.
“He was acting like he was at Carlisle United, not Manchester United.”
Mourinho recently said in an interview that United’s poor end to the season after a bright start to life under Solskjaer – the team won only two of their final 12 games, after starting with 14 wins in the first 17 games of the Norwegian’s reign – was proof that his complaints about the club’s structure and squad were justified.
“Things might have tailed off for United under Solskjaer, but Mourinho doesn’t get it,” countered Parker, who made over 100 appearances for United from 1991 to 1996.
“When you come in as an interim manager, your job is to fill a role. You have to pacify players and you don’t do that by going in and shouting at everyone. You calm things down at the club and then start to earn the respect of the players.
“To be fair, Mourinho might have a point about some of the players, but it doesn’t mean he was right to carry on as he did.
“They might have been difficult to work with. Some of them were stale, some of them were bad apples, and some of them weren’t good enough to challenge at the top, but Solskjaer didn’t ruin the atmosphere at the club, instead he gave them hope.”
Parker pointed to the high point of United’s season, a miraculous 3-1 win away against Paris Saint-Germain to become the first club in Champions League history to win a knockout tie after losing the first leg at home by two goals, as a sign that Solskjaer understood his job better than Mourinho did.
“Look at the game against Paris Saint-Germain, they could never have done that under Mourinho,” said Parker. “You have to work with what you’ve got, whether you think there should be improvements or not.
Jose Mourinho for Man United in the Premier League:— Squawka Football (@Squawka) May 12, 2019
• 93 games
• 50 wins
• 17 losses
• 1.89 points per game
Ole Gunnar Solskjær for Man United in the Premier League:
• 21 games
• 12 wins
• 5 losses
• 1.9 points per game#AskSquawka @FedeGotTalent pic.twitter.com/5VQV2IGWor
“He was the one to blow his golden opportunity – it’s not anybody else’s fault,” the former defender added, highlighting the January 2018 signing of Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal as one of Mourinho’s big mistakes.
Sanchez has managed just five goals and nine assists in 45 appearances for United despite being the club’s highest earner.
“He didn’t buy well, and he bought Alexis Sanchez, which was a disaster for the club’s finances and the team,” Parker said of Mourinho’s role in the signing. “He was fitting a square peg into a round hole, and it was totally unnecessary. Nobody made him do that.
“The problem with Mourinho was that he wanted to be a manager, which misses out at least half of the responsibility of the job, which was to be a coach.
“He’d worked under one of the great man managers, Bobby Robson, but it seemed he learned nothing from him. When Bobby saw weakness, he managed it and mitigated it, he didn’t scream and shout.
“The very best managers plan for a year ahead, they don’t burn all their bridges in anticipation of problems.”
At the end of the 2018/19 season, Manchester United have reached their lowest ebb since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, agreed?
The Red Devils have been on a general decline since the iconic Scot left, but there have been ups and downs. Or maybe, there’s just been varying depths of despair.
Trophies have been won and huge money spent on world-renowned figures. Yet, it’s been coupled with a betrayal of their traditional, swashbuckling DNA, a worrying lack of consistency and a crippling loss of identity.
Here we take both a statistical and analytical look at United over the last six seasons and rate them from best to worst:
1 – 2016/17
League finish – 6th
Points – 69
Goals – 54
Conceded – 29
Top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic – 28
The beginning of the Jose Mourinho era. Many United fans craved the feisty, antagonistic Portuguese. Despite being seen as doing a deal with the devil, it was deemed the only plausible move for a creaking club.
Statement signings were made with big money spent on big names Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic arriving on a free.
As with all Mourinho sides the defence was suitably stoic as Eric Bailly impressed in his debut campaign – United shipped just 29 league goals, only Tottenham let in fewer.
But it was in attack they struggled as United’s 54 goals was a mammoth 23 fewer than the top six’s next lowest scorers (Arsenal, 77).
United finished outside the top four for the second successive year but that disappointment was parlayed by Mourinho leading the club to a treble.
United beat Ajax 2-0 to win the Europa League – the first time in the club’s history they’d lifted the trophy or previous equivalent, and becoming just the fifth team to win all three main European main club trophies in the process – as well as League Cup and Community Shield.
2 – 2017/18
League finish – 2nd
Points – 81
Goals – 68
Conceded – 28
Top scorer Romelu Lukaku – 27
Mourinho had delivered the title during his second season at every other club. It was not to be the case in Manchester though as their neighbours from the blue half of town strutted their stuff and sauntered to the title.
United finished second with 81 points – both highs in the wake of Ferguson’s departure. However, the 19-point chasm to Manchester City was also a record gap separating champions and runners-up in the Premier League era.
All-time record scorer Wayne Rooney was gone after 13 seasons. Also disappearing was silverware as despite a hat-trick of trophies in his first season, United finished empty-handed.
Woeful League Cup and Champions League exits to Bristol City and Sevilla respectively, piled the pressure on Mourinho, who was rapidly running out of support in the stands due to his negative style of play.
3 – 2015/16
League finish – 5th
Points – 66
Goals – 49
Conceded – 35
Top scorer Anthony Martial – 17
Louis van Gaal signed off with an FA Cup triumph – the Red Devils’ 12th (second only behind Arsenal) and first in 12 years – as Crystal Palace were beaten 2-1 in extra-time.
But it didn’t save the veteran Dutchman who was believed to have been sacked hours after the final whistle at Wembley.
United dropped out of the top four once again – coming fifth after a 3-2 defeat at West Ham in the penultimate game of the season contributed to them finishing tied on 66 points with rising force City.
They posted a joint league best defensive record, shipping just 35 goals alongside third-placed Spurs. But they notched just 49 goals at the other end – five fewer than the next lowest under Mourinho the following term and United’s lowest league tally in 26 years.
A meek Champions League group stage exit was compounded by defeat to arch rivals Liverpool in the Europa League’s last 16.
They beat every team above them in the league at some point – with the exception of champions Leicester City (yes, Leicester) – and did the league double over Liverpool but too often dropped points against teams in the bottom half.
4 – 2014/15
League finish – 4th
Points – 70
Goals – 62
Conceded – 37
Top scorer Wayne Rooney – 14
United learned their lesson, hadn’t they? To replace ‘Dithering Dave’ the Old Trafford hierarchy went for the tried and tested method. Legendary Dutch coach Van Gaal was unveiled and after the debacle of overpaying for Marouane Fellaini, winds of change swept in as Van Gaal struck the right chord, splashing out on Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria, Victor Valdes and negotiating a loan deal for Radamel Falcao.
The problem? Van Gaal is a legend but also a dinosaur. His “philosophy” was seemingly to just pass sideways and keep possession. United’s football was turgid.
Di Maria scored only four goals in 32 appearances following his £59.7m arrival and was gone the following summer after being shaken up following a burglary at his home. Falcao looked a shadow of his former self and bagged just four goals in 29 games.
United climbed back into the top four and got a seat back at the Champions League table but failed to contest any trophy – the only time no silverware was lifted or at least a final reached in the first five years post Sir Alex.
Rooney top-scored with 14 – the fewest goals scored by United’s leading man in a season since Joe Jordan’s 13 in 1979/80.
5 – 2013/14
League finish – 7th
Points – 64
Goals – 64
Conceded – 43
Top scorer Wayne Rooney – 19
A monumentally tragic term followed a swashbuckling – if cathartic – final season in charge for Sir Alex. Robin van Persie’s goals carried United to a 20th title the previous year.
Fergie anointed David Moyes his successor and it all looked good after a shimmering 4-1 thrashing of Swansea on the opening day. But it all went drastically downhill from there.
Embarrassing lows were reached as West Brom won at Old Trafford for the first time since 1978 and Newcastle for the first time in 41 years.
United were eliminated from the FA Cup at the first hurdle with a loss to Swansea and limped out of the League Cup on penalties at Sunderland.
Moyes fared fairly well in Europe, a stirring fightback against Olympiacos in the round of 16 saw them erase a 2-0 first leg loss to progress 3-2.
But ultimately Moyes failed to see out the season as he was sacked with a few games to go. United finished 7th, their lowest position in the Premier League era and worst finish since 1989/90, coincidentally the last time they also failed to secure European action the following season.
6 – 2018/19
League finish – 6th
Points – 66
Goals – 65
Conceded – 54
Top scorer Paul Pogba – 16
And so we reach United’s nadir – at least in terms of mood at the end of a season. It began in farcical circumstances when miserable Mourinho – irked by a boardroom refusal to back him in the transfer market – criticised the young players he himself took on the pre-season tour.
He seemed to write the season off before it began in America and it only got worse. They were eliminated from the League Cup by his former charge Frank Lampard – wetting his managerial beak at Championship Derby.
Mourinho was jettisoned in December after a galling 3-1 defeat at Anfield. Iconic former player Ole Gunnar Solskajer came in and instantly lifted the mood, injecting much-needed verve and energy into the players – overseeing a mesmeric 14 wins in his first 17 games, and just one defeat. The highlight was a classic United comeback from the death Champions League triumph over Paris Saint-Germain – but it was all a facade.
United won just two of their remaining 12 as they finished outside the top four for the fourth time in six seasons, were tossed out of the Champions League by Barcelona and exited the FA Cup at Wolves.
It is United’s first consecutive trophyless season in 30 years and there is a stark realisation that the club is probably in deeper trouble now more than at any other period post Fergie.