By Simon Evans
MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) – Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will have the rare luxury of a “second honeymoon” in the coming season, but the Norwegian knows that this time he has to deliver a sustained upturn in fortunes for England’s most successful club.
When Solkskjaer took over on a caretaker basis in December, following the sacking of Jose Mourinho, he enjoyed an immediate and dramatic improvement in results.
Indeed, 14 wins in 19 matches in all competitions including a memorable Champions League victory at Paris St Germain, earned him the job on a permanent basis on March 28.
But then, the new energy and optimism around the club faded as quickly as it arrived — United lost four of their last eight games in the Premier League, including a home defeat to already-relegated Cardiff City on the final day.
Over the last eight games, 14 clubs had better records than United, and the bare statistics don’t tell the full story of shocking performances such as a 4-0 away defeat at Everton and a 1-1 draw at bottom side Huddersfield.
“I think it was a mentally and physically draining season. But mentally because there were ups and downs and especially when you change manager right in the middle,” Solskjaer said.
During the pre-season tour of Asia, United’s coaching staff have looked to build the team’s fitness levels, which were below par in the latter stages of Mourinho’s reign and were blamed for a rash of injuries in the latter stage of the campaign.
But the expected turnover in personnel has not been as radical as many would have expected.
England centre-back Harry Maguire has finally arrived for around 80 million pounds, a world record for a defender, while Aaron Wan-Bissaka is a strong addition at right-back and Dan James looks like a promising, pacy new option on the wing.
While United fans expected more new faces, they also could have imagined more players heading for the exit door — but despite constant speculation over their futures forward Romelu Lukaku and midfielder Paul Pogba are still at the club for now.
Solskjaer has made no secret of his desire to bring through young players and there are signs that the new campaign could see contributions from the likes of 17-year-old forward Mason Greenwood and teenage midfielders Tahith Chong and James Garner.
The Old Trafford crowd loves nothing more than a young team that wants to attack, and that will buy Solskjaer more time as he looks to get the club back in the top-four fight.
The absence of Champions League football will also ease the burden, with the much easier early stages of the Europa League offering a chance to blood the youngsters.
But there will have to be concrete signs of progress this season. Chief executive Ed Woodward knows the club cannot linger outside the elite too long, especially with rivals Manchester City and Liverpool expected to be the frontrunners again.
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Hugh Lawson)