<
>

Man United's decision to hire Solskjaer may be the most surprising appointment in Prem history

play
Solskjaer's first order of business at Man United (4:45)

Craig Burley outlines the five steps that new caretaker-manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær needs to take to turn around Manchester United's fortunes. (4:45)

By this summer, Manchester United will have appointed five managers in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era: David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho, caretaker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and another, as yet undecided, permanent boss.

Each time, the debate about the identity of the new manager has focused upon the identity of the club. Do they understand the traditions? Do they get the club? Is the new boss "a Manchester United manager"?

This week, the emphasis upon "getting Manchester United" is starker than ever. The decision to hire Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to replace the sacked Mourinho is possibly the most surprising appointment in the history of the Premier League. Yes, Solskjaer is only temporarily in charge, but more than half the season remains and United are still competing in the Champions League.

Solskjaer is a bright coach, but he has previously only succeeded in Norway, whose top-flight is comparable to the Kazakhstan Premier League according to UEFA's coefficients, and he contributed to Cardiff's relegation campaign in 2014. United may be struggling, but they remain England's biggest club and it's difficult to recall another manager making such a sudden leap into the big time.

The reason for his appointment, of course, is solely because Solskjaer "knows the club" -- he spent 11 years up front for United and coached the reserves for a couple of seasons. Although really, it's not that Solskjaer knows the club, it's that the club knows Solskjaer. Supporters are delighted to see the return of a familiar face (a babyface, to borrow from his old nickname) after becoming sick of Mourinho's gloomy frown.

The mood will be lifted.

But it's difficult to see any genuine benefit of Solskjaer knowing United. In practical terms, Solskjaer will presumably be familiar with some faces around Carrington and won't need directions to locate Old Trafford's home dressing room. The implication, though, is that Solskjaer understands the club's playing traditions.

What this really means is unclear. The club's modern history is completely dominated by Ferguson, the only United manager to win the title in the last half-century. Under Ferguson, United had no grand philosophy, no permanent approach, which was precisely why United were so successful, so feared. They were utter pragmatists; they won in whatever manner they could.

Of course, Ferguson's United broadly played positively: they were always title challengers, which clearly necessitates pushing for victories in situations where more modest clubs would not. They also became the richest club in England, allowing them to sign top-class players who brought flair and imagination.

But United didn't care how they won. If they needed to win matches through all-out-attacking with combination play down the flanks, they would. If they needed to camp on the edge of their box and break ruthlessly twice, they would. If they'd been outplayed and needed to lump the ball into the box, they would. They were famed for their ability to win without playing well.

Which of Ferguson's sides is Solskjaer, or his replacement, supposed to model United on to satisfy the club's traditions? The speedy 4-4-1-1 side of the formative Premier League years? The possession-and-crossing-based 4-4-2 of the 1999 Treble? The 4-5-1 based around a single striker of the early 2000s? The fluid, flexible, tactically astute side that won the European Cup in 2008? Ferguson's final title winners in 2012-13, who were shambolic in midfield yet had two brilliant strikers combining up front?

There is no common theme running through these sides and Manchester United were rarely praised by neutrals for their quality of football compared to, for example, Arsene Wenger's Arsenal or Pep Guardiola's Manchester City. Ferguson wasn't remotely following a grand Manchester United tradition of great football, a somewhat charitable view propagated by the large number of ex-United players working as television pundits, in much the same manner as Liverpool's ex-players before them.

Some other clubs unquestionably boast a playing philosophy which has been passed down through the generations, and therefore appointing ex-players into coaching roles makes sense. There is an obvious Ajax or Barcelona or Milan philosophy, and it's possible for, say, Frank De Boer or Luis Enrique or Rino Gattuso to have a distinct advantage over less familiar figures.

But when forced to explain the club's traditions, United's ex-players can only ever muster something vague about attacking football, but it's not truly comparable to the demands at, for example, Real Madrid. Real appointed Fabio Capello as manager for 1996-97, he won the league, and was promptly sacked because his side hadn't entertained. A decade later Real appointed him again, he won the league again, and he was sacked again for the same reason. That's a commitment to attacking football. It's inconceivable that, had Manchester United triumphed with Moyes, Van Gaal or Mourinho's styles, anyone would have called for a change of coach.

There is, of course, an entirely legitimate case that Manchester United must seek to play positive, front-foot football, but that argument is based around current concerns rather than nostalgic yearning. The modern football landscape is about positive football, in various forms, and top-class players demand attacking sides.

Besides, the extraordinarily large points tally required to win the league -- which must remain United's ambition in the coming seasons -- requires a high win percentage. A draw away from home was once considered a decent result, these days it's a failure.

But the obsession with meeting indistinct criteria based upon revisionist views of previous successes can only hamper the club. In order for Manchester United to progress in the future, first they must stop kidding themselves about the past.