Managing Manchester United should be one of the easiest jobs in football. There is money to spend, players are attracted by the glamour of one of the world’s most prestigious clubs and Old Trafford is among the sport’s great venues.
It has proven to be a poisoned chalice – and not just for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the other three bosses who have followed Sir Alex Ferguson in the past eight years. One of the most remarkable aspects of United’s history is how few managers have been truly successful. The club has won 20 league titles but they were shared by just three men: Ernest Mangnall, whose team were crowned champions twice before the First World War; Sir Matt Busby, who became a legend by topping the table five times and winning England’s first European Cup; and Ferguson, whose 13 Premier League wins and two Champions League victories made him a towering figure in domestic football for more than two decades.
Compare that to their rivals. Everton spread nine title wins around six managers. Arsenal’s 13 table-topping seasons were overseen by seven bosses. Nine different men were at the helm while Liverpool secured their 19 crowns.
In the 129 years since United started keeping records about the role, the club has had 22 full-time managers. Busby and Ferguson spent more than half a century in charge between them but that still leaves long periods of inexplicable mediocrity for a team of such stature. When Solskjaer talks about “United DNA,” he might have stumbled on an essential truth. Is Old Trafford hard-wired so that only geniuses can cut through the noise and nonsense that tends to surround such a huge club?
The Norwegian has very little to recommend him for the position. He played an important role in the first months after Jose Mourinho was sacked. The Portuguese created an air of chaos and backbiting during his tenure. There were open rifts within the club and Solskjaer, a likeable sort who is a hero to the fans for his exploits on the pitch, was a figure that almost everyone could rally around. He made a great caretaker. Once the shadow of Mourinho had been removed, the 48-year-old had served his purpose.
Instead, Solskjaer was given a three-year extension to his contract in the summer. The folly of that move gets more obvious by the week.
The situation has been exacerbated by the return of Cristiano Ronaldo. The 36-year-old is, at this stage of his career, almost unmanageable. Since he originally arrived in Manchester in 2003, Ronaldo has worked under a who’s who of bosses: Ferguson, Manuel Pellegrini, Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Rafa Benitez, Zinedine Zidane, Massimiliano Allegri and Maurizio Sarri. Andrea Pirlo was in charge during Ronaldo’s last season at Juventus and the Turin club recognised their mistake and dispensed with the 42-year-old in May. By contrast, United doubled down with Solskjaer.
Ronaldo can be difficult. He has high expectations for himself and everyone around him. The five-time Ballon D’Or winner is not prone to taking instruction from those he believes do not match up to his talent. It is an understatement to say that he has been surprised and disappointed at the state of the situation at Old Trafford. Like many in the squad, Ronaldo would prefer a change of manager.
Sympathy for Solskjaer within the team has eroded. The same process has happened in the boardroom. The realisation has come too late. There are no replacements available who are deemed worthy of the job. As recently as earlier this month the hope was that United would be able to muddle on until May and then make the change. The performance of Solskjaer – and the team – mean that it will probably be impossible to limp on that long.
The lesson of the past is that failing in M16 does not make you a bad manager. David Moyes is living proof of that fact. West Ham United were a confused mess when the Scot took over for the second time in east London in December 2019 but the 58-year-old has stuck to his principles and built a team capable of finishing above his former club.
The other warning from history is that it takes a supremely exceptional manager to succeed at Old Trafford. Solskjaer is not that man. His potential replacements might reflect that taking over at United is not quite the perfect job it seems.
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