This article was first published on Oct. 29, 2021 and has been updated.
He may have his hands on the wheel for now, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is still fighting for his job at Manchester United.
Before Saturday’s 3-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur, United had failed to win any of their last four Premier League games and had won just two of their last seven matches overall — Sunday’s 5-0 evisceration by Liverpool in front of a stunned home crowd at Old Trafford being almost the last straw for the Norwegian coach.
Sources have told ESPN’s Rob Dawson and Mark Ogden that Solskjaer is being allowed to continue as manager but he has been told his job is still very much under threat, amid disagreements at board level over his potential successor. But as we’ve seen in the past — not least in Barcelona in 1999 — Solskjaer has a tendency to pull a big result out of the bag right at the last, just when it’s needed most. He’s done it as a player and now he’s doing it repeatedly as United manager, arguably saving his job several times in the process.
Solskjaer has managed to stage remarkable turnarounds in the Champions League, crunch league ties and Manchester derbies, and did so again against Tottenham this weekend ahead of key games against Atalanta and Manchester City.
Having only been in charge of United on a permanent basis for two-and-a-half years, it’s genuinely impressive just how many times Ole has wrestled back control of the wheel just when it looked like he was veering wildly off the road. Here’s some other times he has done it.
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🔴 When Marcus Rashford scored Manchester United winner in Paris… @ManUtd | #UCL pic.twitter.com/lRkRIEMSK6
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) October 20, 2020
This was, arguably, the result that got Solskjaer the job full-time. Around three months into his stint as caretaker manager following the firing of Jose Mourinho, United lost 2-0 at Old Trafford in the first leg of their Champions League round-of-16 tie against Paris Saint-Germain. Few gave them any hope of overturning the deficit in the second leg, only for United to play out of their collective skins in Paris. A 94th-minute penalty from Marcus Rashford wrapped up a 3-1 win for United in front of a stunned crowd at Parc des Princes. The result secured progress into the quarterfinals and a three-year contract for Solskjaer. The shock result in Paris was United’s 14th win from 17 games under Solskjaer, and it led to Rio Ferdinand urging his former club to let the Norwegian write his own contract and Gary Neville asking him where he wanted his statue put up in a giddy postmatch interview.
✍️ How long would you like on your contract?
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🗿 Where would you like your [email protected] puts the big questions to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer!https://t.co/0OKMYBJ8Ca#beINUCL #UCL #MUFC #PSGMUN pic.twitter.com/drUsFRfbao
— beIN SPORTS (@beINSPORTS_EN) March 6, 2019
After finishing the 2018-19 season off with an awful six-game winless streak that culminated in a final-day home defeat against relegated Cardiff City, United washed up in sixth place in the Premier League, a whopping 32 points behind winners Manchester City. Many felt that the Solskjaer magic had worn off by the time the 2019-20 campaign got underway, but any wavering faith was restored when United kicked things off with a 4-0 steamrollering of top four rivals Chelsea in Frank Lampard’s first game in charge. United then drew against Wolves and Southampton, and lost to both Crystal Palace and West Ham in their next few league outings, but the excellent result against Chelsea certainly served to buy their head coach more time.
United managers past and present came head to head at Old Trafford as Mourinho returned to the club for the first time since his sacking the previous December. It was Mourinho’s fourth game in charge of Spurs and the Portuguese was understandably keen to get one over on his former club by exerting his dominance over the affable young coach they’d chosen to replace him. Winless in three coming into the game and with the previous month’s loss at Bournemouth still smarting, Solskjaer’s energetic side grabbed a 2-1 victory thanks to a brace from Rashford.
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United hit a rough patch of form at the turn of the year as they were on the receiving end of a sequence of fairly diabolical 2-0 league defeats against Arsenal, Liverpool and Burnley that left a chasm between them and the top four. Laboured performances then saw United require two attempts to see off Wolverhampton Wanderers in the third round of the FA Cup, ensuring their fourth-round tie against League One side Tranmere was firmly in “potential banana skin” territory. In front of a backdrop of United fans vociferously demonstrating their discontent in the terraces at Prenton Park, Solskjaer’s side produced a six-goal blast that booked them safe passage through to the fifth round and, more importantly, avoided an upset that would have been catastrophic for Solskjaer.
Beating third-tier opponents did not silence the doubters for long. United quickly fell back to earth by getting themselves dumped out of the Carabao Cup semifinal by Manchester City before producing yet another dreary 0-0 draw against Wolves in the Premier League. Next up were Chelsea, with familiar fears resurfacing that a limp performance against supposed rivals could spell the end for Solskjaer. Sure enough, United dug deep and won 2-0 at Stamford Bridge. They went unbeaten in the league for the rest of the 2019-20 campaign (most of which was played without fans and after a three-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic), eventually finishing third.
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With matches still being played without a crowd, United lost their first two home league games of the season: 3-1 to Crystal Palace and then 6-1 to Spurs. Despite subsequent big wins against Newcastle, PSG and RB Leipzig United had hit the skids again in November; losing 1-0 at home against Arsenal in the league before suffering a slapstick 2-1 defeat versus Istanbul Basaksehir in the Champions League (the Turkish club’s first ever victory in the competition). Just to add to the pessimism, United had also lost 4-0 at Goodison the previous season and things soon took a turn for the bleak when Everton went ahead with just 19 minutes on the clock. Bruno Fernandes then began to single-handedly claw Solskjaer’s side back from the brink, scoring two goals before half-time and then laying on a 95th-minute third for Edinson Cavani. United effectively turned their season around afterward, finishing second in the Premier League and reaching the final of the Europa League.
After choosing to rest both Fernandes and Rashford for the occasion, Solskjaer bore the brunt of the ire as United fans (who had been let into stadiums again for the first time post-COVID-19 lockdown) watched West Ham United go in leading at half-time. The Norwegian saw fit to bring both of his in-form stars on at the break and the pair duly pitched in with game-turning cameos as Fernandes supplied two vital assists and Rashford scored United’s third to cap off the comeback.
In a result that not many saw coming, United brought City’s imperious 21-game Premier League winning streak to an end with a 2-0 win in the derby at the Etihad. City were top of the league and 14 points clear of United in second but goals from Fernandes and Luke Shaw saw that gap whittled down to 11 by the final whistle. This all came after United had failed to score in each of their three previous games.
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United made a troublesome knack of having to fight back from conceding early goals in several matches toward the end of the 2020-21 season as Solskjaer’s team continued in their quest to snare Champions League qualification. Social media was at its most reactionary during those games as talk of Solskjaer’s imminent demise did the rounds with his team trailing at half-time, only for the dissent to be replaced by cheerleading following heroic second-half resurgences.
The 3-1 reversal against Spurs in mid-April was one such example, as too was the gritty comeback against Aston Villa just a few weeks later — the latter being the second fixture in a punishing run of five games in 12 days for United. Fortunately, the victory at Villa Park mathematically guaranteed a top-four finish for United but it also served to emphasise Solskjaer’s ability to lurch from the sublime to the ridiculous — sometimes within the space of the same 90-minute period.
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In a rematch of the Europa League final from the previous season, United faced their conquerors that night in Gdansk in the 2021-22 Champions League. Solskjaer’s side had recently suffered an embarrassing 2-1 loss against Swiss also-rans Young Boys in their Group F opener, before following up with consecutive 1-0 defeats against West Ham and Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup and Premier League. United were rocked by Paco Alcacer’s 53rd-minute opener and, as usual, it was being mooted that another bad result could cost Solskjaer his job. Alex Telles managed to blast home a 20-yard equaliser on the hour mark but United looked to be drifting toward another disappointment — right up until the 95th minute, when returning hero Cristiano Ronaldo popped up to save his manager’s hide.
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By now you’ll be familiar with the format: United were losing to Atalanta in the Champions League as Solskjaer stared on in wide-eyed disbelief from the dugout. Half-time came and the home side were trailing by two goals as Old Trafford was full of nerves, while diatribes over the manager’s tactical nous and future employment prospects were fired back and forth on social media. Then a three-goal avalanche in the second half (including another late winner from Ronaldo) produced another one of those thrilling European nights to send the fans home happy. Until Liverpool arrive four days later, that is.
ESPN’s Mark Ogden, Rob Dawson and Andrew Cesare Richardson contributed to this report