Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has Manchester United’s support but needs another important result at Everton

United back Solskjaer but pressure mounting with every poor result

Mark Critchley
Northern Football Correspondent
Friday 06 November 2020 17:40
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It is more than six-and-a-half years since a publicity-hungry betting company sent a man to Goodison Park dressed as the Grim Reaper to stand ominously behind the doomed figure of David Moyes.  

Then Manchester United manager, Moyes watched his side lose 2-0 to his former club Everton that day, ensuring that they could not qualify for the following season’s Champions League. Two days later, his contract was terminated.

The bell does not toll for thee, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer - not yet at least - but the pressure on fourth successor to Sir Alex Ferguson is growing as he prepares for a trip to Goodison Park tomorrow lunchtime.

Solskjaer travels to Merseyside following a feeble display at home to Arsenal on Sunday and an almost comical defensive collapse against Istanbul Basaksehir in the Champions League, but those back-to-back defeats have not put his job in immediate danger.

Even with Mauricio Pochettino available and touting himself to potential suitors on television this week, Solskjaer retains the support of the United hierarchy. 

Last season’s third-place finish and return to the Champions League has not been forgotten. The victories over Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig - part of an initially impressive response to the 6-1 defeat against Tottenham - were encouraging.

There is a great desire for a manager who achieved legendary status as a player to succeed. That is shared by the vast majority of supporters, but even their confidence in Solskjaer will naturally begin to erode if results do not improve and a level of consistency is not found quickly.

This time last year, United made their worst start to a domestic league campaign since the 1989-90 season. Solskjaer needs to beat Everton to surpass last season’s points tally after seven games. Losing would equal 1989-90’s record of two wins, a draw and four defeats.  

One factor in Solskjaer’s favour is that under his management, it has always seemed darkest just before the dawn. Whenever United have needed a result to avoid a prolonged run of poor form, they have found it.  

So it was with the creditable draw against Liverpool last October, the wins over Tottenham and Manchester City in December, the 19-game unbeaten run which followed the home defeat to Burnley in January, then the wins over Newcastle, Paris and Leipzig after the 6-1 debacle last month.

The question is how long this cycle will be allowed to continue. As Solskjaer’s second anniversary in the job approaches, at what point do we pull the camera back and assess whether United are any closer to becoming a consistent, successful, winning football team? 

Good and bad results come and go, but drill down and the issues run too deep for any run of form to cover.  

United will, for example, travel to Gooidson as the only Premier League side yet to attempt a single shot from inside the six-yard box this season. It’s no fluke. Last year, only Newcastle took less of their shots from close range, while United took more of their shots from outside the box than any other team.  

A one-time goal poacher himself, Solskjaer has consistently stressed the importance of scoring “scrappy” goals to his strikers ever since his appointment as Jose Mourinho’s successor. Is the message cutting through? Is he capable of communicating what he wants to see and translating that into performance on the pitch?

It’s difficult to tell because it has become increasingly unclear exactly how Solskjaer wants United to be playing. The last five games have seen him deploy three different systems - his usual 4-2-3-1, a back three with a 3-4-1-2, and a 4-4-2 diamond. It is not a crime to tailor a system to the opposition - sometimes, it is just smart management - but when results do not follow it seems desperate.

Manchester United full-back Luke Shaw

Solskjaer insists that whatever the shape is, the principles remain the same. If only those principles were properly defined. An insistence on passing the ball quickly and playing with width is about as much as Solskjaer has ever revealed when asked to lay out his vision of how his United should play. Neither of those principles are consistently reflected out on the pitch.

The dressing room is supportive. Players enjoy working under Solskjaer. The atmosphere is vastly different to the toxicity which set in under Mourinho. This constant tinkering of formation does little to ease doubts within the squad about Solskjaer’s tactical acumen though, and poor results naturally affect morale. The slumped, crestfallen reaction of some players to the final whistle in Istanbul was revealing.  

And it is the manner of defeats which may be most concerning of all. If performances were good but results were simply not falling Solskjaer’s way, there may be greater sympathy and understanding. Yet the amateurish defending seen against Tottenham was repeated against Basaksehir and spoke to a fundamentally broken team.

The result of Saturday’s trip to Everton is not thought to be pivotal to Solskjaer’s future. Still, he will be aware - as much as anyone else - that the pressure mounts with every unsatisfactory result and performance. Solskjaer has a useful knack of winning when he needs to.  

He goes to the well once again at Goodison, hoping this is not the weekend that it runs dry.

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