23rd January seems like a long time ago today.
The world was still functioning at its normal break-neck pace, while a pandemic gradually but surely was lurking in the corners of our massive metropolises.
It sure seems like a long time ago if you are a Manchester United fan and particularly, the manager – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
You just witnessed your team lose to Burnley at home, which was part of a run that saw the Red Devils lose three of their last five Premier League fixtures.
A lot has changed since then. The world is different, football is different and Manchester United are surely different.
Since that game against Burnley at Old Trafford, Solskjaer’s side has not lost a game in any competition – a run that was extended to 16 games with a 5-2 demolition of Bournemouth on Saturday.
The Premier League giants are undefeated in their last nine league games, winning six of them.
Manchester United fans have been experiencing something that they have not felt too often in the last seven years – a team that truly represent the best ethos of the club, which always strive to play football on the front foot.
For most of the last seven years, the Manchester United faithful have too often looked at the past.
They harked back to the glory days of Sir Alex Ferguson and first lamented the loss of their pre-eminent status in English football and then something more soul-crushing – a loss of identity.
David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho – all of them failed to get in line or touch with the soul of the club and all of them turned out to be misadventures.
But for the first time since 2013, Manchester United fans are relearning to love the team, the present and most importantly, they are looking forward to the future again.
In Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, they have a manager who understands the culture of Manchester United and what the fans crave for from their team when they are on the pitch.
During the gloomy winter of 2019, the Manchester United manager’s talk of a cultural reset and building a team on attacking instincts looked hollow as his side continued to struggle on the pitch.
The team that lost to Bournemouth in November are unidentifiable to the one who smashed the same side at Old Trafford last weekend.
Derided by a minor section of fans as a Norwegian PE teacher, Solskjaer has proved his doubters wrong. His decision to sign Bruno Fernandes in January could be marked as the turning point of his managerial career at Old Trafford.
The Portugal midfielder’s effect on the side has been compared to the one Eric Cantona had on Sir Alex Ferguson’s side in the 1990s.
But keeping Fernandes aside, Solskjaer’s impact on the club can be seen throughout the team. He turned Fred from a £50m flop to one of the most consistent players in his squad.
Before the pandemic, the Brazilian was one of the first names on the team-sheet and produced performances in big games.
Scott McTominay has added an attacking dimension to his game while he looked just a midfield disruptor under Jose Mourinho.
Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial have scored 20 goals each in a season for the first time in their careers under Solskjaer.
However, Solskjaer’s biggest credit has been handling Mason Greenwood’s introduction to senior football. Regular youth observers had no doubt about his talent but potential doesn’t always translate into performances in the first team.
The teenager has been scoring goals from pre-season but the Norwegian resisted the temptation of playing him too much too soon.
The 18-year-old has been gradually bedded in and now he has established himself as one of the regulars in the first team through the sheer weight of his performances.
But Solskjaer has not shied away from suggesting that Greenwood needs to be managed despite the clarion calls from the fans to not drop him.
The Manchester United manager has not got carried away with the youngster’s performance, which could have been easier for any other coach.
Can Solskjaer turn Manchester United into title contenders?
With results and performances on the upturn, Manchester United remain confident of being in the top four this season and qualify for next season’s Champions League.
Fifth spot could also earn them a place in the European high table as there is an increasing likelihood that the Court of Arbitration for Sports will side with UEFA and upheld Manchester City’s European ban.
But Manchester United would prefer to be in the top four rather than sneak into the Champions League through the back door.
Champions League means a lot when it comes to the bottom line of clubs in Europe but in a post-pandemic world, the extra money could make a huge difference in Manchester United taking the necessary strides in the transfer market when the window opens.
But just qualifying for Champions League is not enough for a club of their size.
Manchester United want to challenge for the league title again and go deep in the Champions League in the coming years. The challenge for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is to take the club to the perch.
Despite the vast improvements his side have made over the course of the season, the Norwegian is still battling the perception that he is not the man to win the league for Manchester United again.
Doubts over his ability to go toe-to-toe with Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola (Solskjaer remains the only manager to beat Guardiola three times over the course of a campaign) as a manager remain.
Winning one of the FA Cup or the Europa League or both this season would be massive for him going forward.
However, the 47-year-old will continue to battle those perceptions as long as Manchester United are not challenging for the top honours again.
The 2020-21 campaign will be massive for Solskjaer in his bid to convince the naysayers.
The Norwegian will be hopeful that the club backs him in the market when the transfer window opens and will be looking forward to more improvements from his squad in the coming season.
It’s a high bar – Klopp and Guardiola – for Solskjaer to match and there is a persistent feeling that he is not of that level. It is up to the 47-year-old to prove us wrong and win the 21st league title for Manchester United.
The former striker could also become the man who would rebuild Manchester United and leave the next manager to give the finishing touches to a team that would go on to win the Premier League.
I am sure Manchester United fans would prefer to see Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – one of their own – to be the man to win the first league title since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.