Double winning Molde even better without Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
They said that replacing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was an impossible task. The legendary striker turned into a legendary coach at the team of his youth, as he took Norwegian side Molde FK to two league titles in 2011 and 2012. For a club that had won precisely none in their previous 100 years of existence, that was an achievement of phenomenal proportions.
Locally, Solskjaer was compared to his mentor at Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson, and when he left for a chance to manage in the Premier League with Cardiff City in January 2014, his successor was naturally branded as a potential David Moyes [although before Moyes' failings would become truly known]. Who would want the job where you will never be able to replicate the achievements of the previous incumbent?
As it turned out, Tor Ole Skullerud wanted it, and it took him just a couple of months to prove the sceptics wrong. As the Norwegian season came to a conclusion this Sunday with Molde celebrating the first league and cup double in their history, there was general agreement in the country that the new coach managed to improve the team he had inherited.
Molde might have lifted the cup with a 4-2 win over Rosenborg in November 2013, but they only finished sixth in the Tippeligaen, a whopping 19 points behind champions Stromsgodset. It was that league form that led Solskjaer to believe that his mission at the club was over and he was ready to make a step forward in his career. But by September 2014, the "Baby-Faced Assassin" had been sacked by Cardiff after failing to stave off relegation and, conversely, his former club went from strength to strength without him.
Solskjaer's work in Norway certainly wasn't overrated -- indeed he must be credited with laying the foundations of a team that is set up to rule the Norwegian football for years to come. However, the current version of Molde is much closer to perfection: striker Fredrik Gulbrandsen even said after the team's success this weekend that Molde-2014 are the best team in Norwegian history. [At the tender age of 22, he can be forgiven for some youthful enthusiasm, but he might still have a point.]
Molde won 71 points this term -- a new record for a 30-game season, only bettered on average by Rosenborg who took 63 points from 26 games in 1998. Molde went unbeaten from April to October, only slowing down when the title was virtually assured following a run of seven consecutive wins. Throughout the campaign, their relentlessness and quality of play instilled fear in the rest of the teams; it was almost useless to fight them. The gap of 11 points from runners-up Rosenborg tells its own story.
For 43-year-old Skullerud, that was a huge personal triumph during his first season at any club. Without much experience to call upon, he had only worked with the Norway under-21 team before, leading them to the semifinals of the European Championships last summer, where they comprehensively thrashed Stuart Pearce's England 3-1 and drew with Italy before succumbing to eventual winners Spain.
The signs were there though. Skullerud made a great impression at that tournament -- his tactical choices were brilliant, he was very close to his players, created a great atmosphere in the dressing room while enjoying undisputed authority, and was open and friendly with the press as well. Club football is totally different to the national game, and transitions are not always easily made, which makes the fact that Skullerud settled into his new job as though he had been doing it for ages even more impressive.
The biggest improvement at Molde compared to the Solskjaer era, however, came at the back. While the team conceded more than a goal per game in each season under Solskjaer -- who was considered a bit naive at times -- they only let in 24 in 30 matches this time. Talented keeper Orjan Nyland, who has already been linked to Arsenal and Manchester United, was brilliant throughout after working under Skullerud in the U-21 team and will only improve.
Meanwhile former Southampton centre-back Vegard Forren pointed the finger directly at Skullerud, telling reporters: "The coach has sharpened our defence." While Christian Monge Hugsted of football site Dagbladet told ESPN FC: "Defence is extremely important to Skullerud, he is a bit like [Chelsea boss Jose] Mourinho when it comes to that."
As for attacking play, Skullerud made it much more varied and flexible. Tactics changed according to opponents -- Molde still like to maintain possession, but very quick vertical football is also implemented when they get a chance to roam forward. Harmeet Singh, another former U-21 star, was especially influential, after being somewhat bizarrely released by Feyenoord.
"Molde are better defensively than under Solskjaer and succeed in changing between different attacking systems," Trond Hustad of Romsdals Budstikke told ESPN FC. In fact, they are simply better in every department.
With five domestic titles in four seasons, Skullerud wants to make a significant progress in Europe next season. This summer, Molde lost to modest Ukrainian outfit Zorya Luhansk in the Europa League qualifiers, but are aiming to make it to the Champions League group stages in the coming years.
"If Malmo can do it, so can we," Skullerud said, regarding to the historic success of Swedish champions who host Juventus on Wednesday, still with a chance of qualifying from their group. Some journalists tend to agree, as Steinar Bjerkmann of NTB told ESPN FC: "Molde possess the same quality as Malmo."
Molde have already tasted the Champions League in 1999, when -- after qualifying for the tournament as Tippeligaen runners-up -- they eliminated CSKA Moscow and Mallorca on the way to face Real Madrid, Porto and Olympiakos at the group stage, even taking three points off the latter. Now it's time to dream big again.
Skullerud has spoken about continuity. In short, Molde want to build a dynasty, just like Rosenborg did in the previous two decades, enjoying enormous success in Europe as well. They have financial resources to do that -- given the backing of wealthy local businessmen, Kjell Inge Rokke and Bjorn Rune Gjelsten, a former world champion in boat racing, who were responsible for the rebranding Wimbledon as Milton Keynes Dons.
Molde will never be relocated, of course, and fans love Gjelsten and Rokke, but the rest of Norway is not so easily won over. While the 2013 champions Stromsgodset were immensely popular, largely thanks to the charismatic coach Ronny Deila who moved to Celtic in the summer, neutrals are not too excited about Molde because they are "too rich."
The double winners are seen as a buying club, as opposed to most of their rivals who raise talents at their academies, but while Molde face a tough task of keeping and strengthening their squad ahead of the 2015 season, fans all over the country have a difficult dilemma. Do they want them to stay the strongest team in Norway by a distance and have a chance to play in the Champions League, like Rosenborg in the '90s and 2000s? Or do they prefer Molde to sell their best players and remain weak on international stage, so that the domestic league will continue to be entertaining and full of drama?
"The nation will be divided. Some will welcome Molde success, but some will be against it," Oyvind Herrebroden of Norwegian newspaper VG told ESPN FC. There is little doubt regarding the success of Skullerud, and Solskjaer will only be delighted to see his former team becoming a force to be reckoned with. Certainly, their journey isn't finished yet.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin