Europa League & Conference League Magazine - Episode 3Oct 1
Can Ole Gunnar Solskjaer finally break his semi-final hoodoo?
The Red Devils boss will be looking to end a miserable run of four consecutive semi-final losses when his side face Roma in the Europa League exclusively live on BT Sport.
It wasn’t too long ago that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s exit from Manchester United seemed an inevitability.
Whether fairly or not, the Norwegian club legend had always felt like a placeholder in the dugout at Old Trafford, someone keeping the seat warm before the next great coach became available.
During a topsy-turvy tenure, the 48-year-old has claimed his fair share of scalps in impressive victories.
But for every fine performance in the Solskjaer era, like beating Manchester City at the Etihad or hammering RB Leipzig at home, it never felt tough to recall an equally dismal display, as those infamous home defeats to Tottenham and Sheffield United will attest.
In recent months, it looks as though Solskjaer’s Man Utd project has turned a corner; since that aforementioned loss to Sheffield United in late January, only Leicester have managed to defeat the Red Devils.
There have still been off days, like the goalless draw against Leeds last time out, but the guillotine no longer appears an imminent threat to the Baby-Faced Assassin.
Perhaps Solskjaer can feel it too. No longer does he come across as a grinning competition winner while addressing the press; with every passing week, both he and his Manchester United side seem to settle into their identity with a little more assuredness.
The process of transforming a United side built to please Jose Mourinho back into the slick, attacking force they once were, has been a slow one but the improvements are there for all to see.
We need to be better. I'm not sure it's about the mental bit
- Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Out of possession, United press much higher, favouring a front-foot style in order to win the ball back in more advanced areas. And when they do win it, the 2017 Europa League winners are able to call upon a much more diverse array of creative talent.
Bruno Fernandes is undoubtedly the team’s primary playmaker but the re-emergence of United’s full-backs, Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, is also a credit to Solskjaer’s tactical acumen and man management.
Shaw in particularly has had a stellar season and looks to be a certainty for the England squad at the forthcoming European Championships this summer – an almost unthinkable outcome during the former Saints man’s struggles under Mourinho.
According to stats service WhoScored, Shaw has created 50 goalscoring chances in the Premier League alone this season, currently level with Lionel Messi’s domestic tally in La Liga despite having played fewer games.
And while United’s improvements under Solskjaer in recent times see them comfortably placed as the second best team in the land behind Man City, Ole knows the lifeblood of his beloved football club is silverware – something that has been sorely lacking over the past few seasons.
Solskjaer’s quest for trophies has not been helped by a rotten run of form in crucial semi-final matches since taking the reins at Old Trafford: four defeats from four appearances have frustrated fans and players alike.
“Sometimes, you meet good teams in semis and we just didn’t have enough,” Solskjaer explained of their losing streak after United were beaten by Man City in the Carabao Cup final four in January.
How to watch Man Utd vs Roma
Click here for your essential viewing guide to Thursday's night's Europa League semi-final first leg.
“When you get to this stage [of cup competitions], you play against better teams. It comes on some nights [down] to margins, quality.”
Without a trophy since the League Cup and Europa League double in 2017, is it possible that United have forgotten how to clinch the big games?
“We need to be better,” Solskjaer continued.
“I’m not sure if it’s about the mental bit. It’s about some practice, some habits and some desire at times.”
United come up against a Roma side hoping the winning habit will have returned, as they prepare to welcome a few familiar faces back to Old Trafford for the first leg of their Europa League semi-final tie.
Both Chris Smalling and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are expected to be in Paulo Fonseca’s starting XI with the former Red Devils duo – who played key roles in United’s 2017 Europa League winning campaign – enjoying a new lease of life in Serie A.
Another familiar foe, Edin Dzeko, is also expected to start on Thursday night as the former Man City striker seeks to continue an incredible run at Old Trafford in which the Bosnian marksman has scored five goals in four appearances.
But history appears to be on Ole’s side, with United possessing a fearsome home record in knockout European football.
The Red Devils have not lost a European semi-final at home since 1997, while they have only been beaten by Italian opposition once in their last 12 games against sides from Serie A.
Will the stars finally align for Solskjaer to break his – and United’s - semi-final hoodoo? Find out on BT Sport 2 HD & Ultimate from 7.15pm tonight.