How would you like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as your manager?
“Of course I didn’t think it was over,” said Solksjaer, at age 26, not too long after he’d won Manchester United the 1999 Champions League, which also won them the continental treble. His winner against Bayern Munich—and maybe Ryan Giggs’s winner against Arsenal in the FA Cup semifinal that same year—are all you’d need to adequately explain Fergie Time, a Sir Alex Ferguson Joint to someone unfamiliar. The elevator pitch is simple and easy to remember: an unthinkable piece of magic (dark or otherwise) conjured at the last possible second, whether you like it or not.
In that ’99 CL Final at Camp Nou, Solskjaer was thrown on for Andy Cole in the 82nd minute. Then, in the 94th:
The post-match interviews are worth your time, especially the manager’s. Sir Alex’s groutfit is one thing; seeing the author of so many of course finishes struggle to put one word in front of the other is a different thing entirely. “Football,” he said. Then he took a beat to absorb the immensity of the moment and fail to process it. “Bloody hell.” It’s earnest and warm and goofy, sort of like the way Ole—now 46 and Manchester United’s interim manager—is still calling Ferguson “boss.”
Speaking of Ole and that “interim” tag, Gary Neville wants to know what Ole thinks his new salary should be. Do you want him as your manager?
✍️ How long would you like on your contract?— beIN SPORTS (@beINSPORTS) March 6, 2019
What do you want your salary to be?
Where would you like your statue?@GNev2 puts the big questions to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer!https://t.co/0OKMYBJ8Ca#beINUCL #UCL #MUFC #PSGMUN pic.twitter.com/drUsFRfbao
Big European Nights were a delicacy that Manchester United used to promise, but those nights have seemed conspicuously absent in recent years. Once fearsome, the Red Devils have been cowed by group exits, by Wissam Ben Yedder doubles, and by generally more sharpened and interested opponents. In fact it’s been since 2013-14, in David Moyes’s ill-fated season in charge, that United last managed a win in the Champions League knockout round at all. After losing 2-0 at home to Paris St.-Germain in the first leg of the last 16 in this year’s competition, it seemed the trend would continue.
And that’s not just because of the two-away-goal deficit that required overturning, but also because Thomas Tuchel’s PSG side won so comprehensively, allowing United just one shot on goal, at home. For all his motivational skills, Solskjaer isn’t considered the greatest in-game tactician, you know, and after getting a passing grade in his biggest match to date—a 1-nil victory over Mauricio Pochettino and Tottenham in January—the first-leg loss to the Parisians last month was deemed to be his “reality check.”
So do you think Solskjaer can be your manager?
Early reviews of his tenure at Old Trafford were cautiously optimistic. The José Mourinho era was technically over after two and a half seasons, but it was so dark and onerous and sticky when he departed in December that it bled into Solskjaer’s early successes (11 straight games unbeaten and a perfect away record!). This made assessing the caretaker’s full-time prospects difficult. Set free the stable of premium talent, give them a pat on the back instead of a public hiding every once in a while, and you’re bound to win at least a few games. But eventually, the thinking went, you’ll bump up against the PSGs of the world.
In February’s first leg, PSG were better than United even without Neymar, and no team had ever overturned a 2-0 deficit heading into an away tie before. Also: 10 (!) first-team players were either injured or suspended. There was no Paul Pogba, no Jesse Lingard, no Ander Herrera, no Anthony Martial, no Nemanja Matić.
So Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took eight youth academy products to Paris and beat PSG 3-1 at their stadium. Don’t you want him as your manager?
It was a miracle propped up by several other miracles: PSG defender Thilo Kehrer’s suicidal back pass in the opening minutes that led to Romelu Lukaku’s first goal. Lukaku’s second goal, off a rebound from a grass-skipping stinger that PSG keeper Gianluigi Buffon would palm wide 98 out of 100 times instead of directly into a striker’s feet. And there was the reemergence of Fred, a United outsider who bossed the midfield, and his life up, despite never seeming all that capable of doing so until this point. As in most recent United games, every player seems to have jumped a few marks out of 10 or ascended to a higher plane entirely. Oh, yeah: Chris Smalling put Kylian Mbappé in his pocket. Mbappé poked out every once in a while to hit the post or assist the odd disallowed goal, but things can’t be miraculous if they don’t seem impossible and a tiny bit unjust.
OK, maybe a lot unjust. PSG outpossessed, outshot, and outpassed their opponents for the entire game. With United still needing a goal to advance and only minutes from elimination, Diogo Dalot hit a prayer from outside the box—the team’s first shot of the second half. Presnel Kimpembe leapt to block it, showing his back and a little too much of his right arm. After a small eternity VAR awarded the penalty, and Marcus Rashford converted from the spot in the 94th minute to complete the historic comeback. Of course, there were five interminable, nervy, narrative-jeopardizing minutes of stoppage time afterward.
Solskjaer did say before the trip to Paris that he never approaches any game as a “lost cause.” He’s been saying some version of that for some time now, two decades running. You know he’s your manager now, right?