One year ago, Jose Mourinho launched an astonishing rant about what he called Manchester United’s “footballing heritage”. Manchester United, who were sitting prettily in second place in the Premier League, had surprisingly lost to an average Sevilla side at home in the last 16 of the Champions League.
As became par for the course during Mourinho’s reign, at the first sign of conflict, the Portuguese manager came out fighting fire with fire, pointing out the club’s misfortunes in order to protect his own legacy.
“In seven years, with four different managers, once not qualify for Europe, twice out in the group phase and the best was the quarter-final. This is football heritage.”
“The reality is that some clubs, they were ready to win,” he said. “Other clubs are not ready to win. One thing is to go for the jugular and another is to build a different process.
“If the clubs in a better situation than us stop investing and we invest, we can be side to side. If they keep investing the same or more than us, it’s difficult. It’s as simple as that. It’s difficult.”
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, with no new additions to the playing staff from Mourinho’s time, up to 10 players missing through injury, star player Paul Pogba suspended from the first leg, has managed to restore Manchester United’s heritage with their victory against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League on Wednesday night, their first progression to the quarter-finals in five years.
It was an inconceivable result, given the state of the squad, a deficit of two goals away from home and the quality of their opponents. But so much of what Manchester United have done under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been inconceivable.
A new manager bounce is to be expected, but this bounce has now extended to 17 games, where 14 have been won, two drawn and only one game lost. United under Solskjaer have won everything single game away from home, against opponents that include PSG, Spurs and Arsenal.
In recent weeks, this has occurred in the backdrop of a dreadful injury crisis, with the likes of Ander Herrera, Anthony Martial and Nemanja Matic being crucial players in the early days of the Norwegian’s reign. Players continue to get injured, yet United continue to win. In L’Équipe player ratings for the PSG game, the highest rated Manchester United player was given an 8/10 rating (Lukaku). Solskjaer was given a 9/10.
Solskjaer is the chief instigator behind this revival, if only a figurehead of an excellent team of coaches that have revived the Red Devils. He says the right things and pushes the buttons of United fans almost to perfection after the divisive and hateful years of Mourinho. Importantly, regarding matters on the pitch, he is happy to delegate and embrace the influence of the Alex Ferguson years, accepting advice from the main man, but also allowing former assistant Mike Phelan to take training sessions and instill the philosophy of yesteryear. Upcoming coaches Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna seem to be taking a greater role and are growing in confidence.
It makes for a happy team on the pitch, with improvements coming from every corner of the squad. At the back, United are no longer a shambles, funnily enough praising the defenders that are there instead of whinging to the media about lack of investment in defenders is proving popular with the squad. Victor Lindelof continues to improve and is enjoying team talks in Swedish from Solskjaer. Luke Shaw has gotten over years of being thrown in front of the bus by Mourinho to become ever-present in the team.
In midfield, Paul Pogba has been outstanding and has finally looked like the player that United spent a world-record fee for. The Frenchman, who was in and out of the team before Solskjaer’s arrival, has scored 8 goals and made 7 assists in just 12 games since the Norwegian arrived. In attack, everything is more fluid and, Sanchez aside, every player has improved. Rashford has spoken about how Solskjaer’s advice has improved his finishing technique, Martial has enjoyed himself enough to go from looking to leave to signing a new contract, while Lukaku has gone from benchwarmer to scoring 6 goals in 3 games in Martial’s absence through injury.
In this wonderful run, United have come from behind to beat Southampton, come from two goals behind to draw with Burnley, and finally come from two goals behind on aggregate to beat PSG. Never-say-die attitude, great European nights, attacking football. Sure looks like United’s footballing heritage.