Manchester United fans remain divided over Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – now the dressing room is, too

There is a growing disquiet about the management of the side, and the general approach, even if many of the squad still ‘like him’. He should never have been given this job and a number of his team know it

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Thursday 23 January 2020 16:00 GMT
Solskjaer: United not good enough in Burnley defeat

For now, Manchester United’s stance on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has not changed and they back him, but that’s not the case with some of the players.

There is a growing disquiet about the management of the side, and the general approach, even if many of the squad still “like him”. Some decisions - like certain tactical approaches and drills - have irritated players.

That’s of course always going to be the case when a team isn’t doing well, and some around the club believe that’s always going to be the case with this group.

“This lot probably would have had a problem with Fergie,” one source said.

That’s perhaps fair, and there are certainly very pertinent questions as to how exactly United ended up with a squad as threadbare as this, but it’s similarly impossible not to ask if they should be managed better than this.

It feels a classic case of an Overton window, where previously unpalatable situations just become acceptable because of gradual shifts over time. Hence Solskjaer wittering on about the respect Manchester City showed them in a defeat that should have been a hammering, and the “strides” made against Liverpool in a defeat that - yes - should have been a hammering too.

Losing to those clubs is one thing, but losing to Crystal Palace, Bournemouth, Watford and now Burnley? Even allowing for the many injuries United have, and the dire need for reinforcements before that, the club ultimately has a better side than any of them.

Wednesday night’s XI was not a Manchester United team, no, but it was better than the Burnley one. They simply shouldn’t be outwitted and outdone in such a way, where these defeats felt so… predictable.

And that’s kind of the wider problem right now. It does just feel like United are in that “negative spiral” where every problem compounds the last, and there’s just such a beatable deflation around the place.

It’s also why it feels that Wednesday was the low, the worst it’s been in the modern era. The midfield is certainly the worst it’s been since, what, relegation? But that’s only one part. What’s so bad about it all is that it seems so aimless, with so many problems to solve.

That United are still somehow fifth is almost irrelevant, more a consequence of the insulating effects of super-club money - for they still have that - and in its own way even more damning. They have all this advantage, and this is what they’re offering up.

It’s all so different to a mere 10 months ago, when United were in the opposite situation, and an emotional wave. It was then that executive vice chairman Ed Woodward made a decision that sums up so much of the post-Ferguson United: reactive, relatively unthinking.

He went and appointed Solskjaer when there was no need or pressure to do so. They had the space to plan, to think, something that is so preciously rare in football. Solskjaer's initial post-Mourinho run had given them that, at the least. They squandered it.

It’s all the more damning since there wasn’t even much of a will to appoint him. Although there was Rio Ferdinand’s now infamous appeal after the Paris Saint-Germain game, and repeated questions at Solskjaer press conferences, the team had already started to lose matches - and start this ongoing bad run - by the time of his permanent appointment.

Had Woodward shown a bit more nerve, they could well have got Mauricio Pochettino or Antonio Conte that summer, in a situation that would not have been controversial or a betrayal of Solskjaer in the slightest

Instead it feels they are stuck with this situation, feeling forced to back this managerial regime precisely because that’s what they did in the first place, and because of previous criticism for rashness. It is why Solskjaer himself is both a problem and merely exposes bigger problems.

The state of the squad has led to more questions about the state of the club’s finances. How is it that Manchester United, still producing record revenues, can produce a squad like this?

Some of it has admittedly been down to bad planning, that the club have accepted has been the case, and have tried to rectify. But, even after that, Solskjaer sanctioned big sales without getting in reinforcements in a Europa League season. Then there was the decision to play Marcus Rashford against Wolves, which feels like it has the potential to be a tipping-point moment.

Burnley were the latest club to expose United on Wednesday
Burnley were the latest club to expose United on Wednesday (EPA)

That is all a huge strain on the squad, but not as great as the strain on the club of that debt. It is worth saying that this is another situation that feels to have been bizarrely normalised, and should be mentioned more.

The fact that the 2005 Glazer takeover was allowed to even take place remains a genuine football tragedy. It just shouldn’t have been. That this is the fate of one of the great football institutions is lamentable.

It is ultimately a huge reason for how the club has squandered 30 years of advantage in the space of about six, and so quickly fallen behind Liverpool and Manchester City. That, uncomfortably for many, goes right back to Sir Alex Ferguson’s own personal squabbles and the dispute over the Rock of Gibraltar racehorse.

The fall-out from that and purchase of shares facilitated the Glazer takeover. The current problems aren’t even as much down to that debt, however, as the decisions and how the club is run: often for commerce, rather than for trophies.

They’d only have to listen to the words of an influential figure across town, however, for a corrective reality. City chief executive Ferran Soriano has long argued that the generation of revenue is only possible from the “virtuous circle” created by having a top team. The latter is the real product you sell.

United, for their part, are currently trying to do business. They have been pursuing Bruno Fernandes but do want to take a fair long-term view there, and not make the kind of expensive signing that is only for the short-term. They still want James Maddison. They have investigated the possibility of Edinson Cavani this window, among a few striking options.

The guarantee of goals can make a huge difference. Football can still be someway simplistic like that.

The same applies to the club. For all United’s many, many problems, they are still in a financially advantageous situation where the right manager can make a huge difference too.

The brutal fact is that they have stuck with someone who most of the Premier League would not want. Some of United’s players are beginning to see that point of view. The club remain steadfast. It means they may well remain stuck where they are.

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