When Cristiano Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes were away with Portugal last week, the two naturally discussed Manchester United at length. Both liked Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but neither felt he was up to it. That feeling had spread around the entire dressing room.
Outgoing executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward was well aware of this. It was why there was greater pressure on Solskjaer going into the Watford game, and a sense of unease.
Still, nobody expected it to get as bad as that at Vicarage Road. Then again, that has been the story of the modern Manchester United, and particularly Solskjaer’s time. They have frequently been blindsided by developments, due to bad decisions.
The entire tone was set by the initial appointment in March 2019, as crisis constantly followed full backing. They needlessly gave Solskjaer the permanent job, only for form to immediately nosedive and reach a nadir with a 4-0 defeat at Everton the following month.
They had managers like Mauricio Pochettino and Thomas Tuchel attainable in autumn 2020 but persisted with Solskjaer despite a 6-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur and a remarkable Champions League elimination to RB Leipzig.
They gave him a new three-year contract in the summer, just as form had reached a tipping point. They refused to act when the availability of Antonio Conte and the international break gave them an obvious opportunity, only to be forced into the inevitable.
That’s what this was: inevitable.
Solskjaer finishes his time in charge with no trophies, no title challenge and a best points return of 74 points – usually enough to get fourth. That’s the logical conclusion of persisting with a coach who is some way off the top level. He’ll just perform to par, at best.
Solskjaer obviously had some qualities that served the club’s constant appeals to their heritage, but not enough for the realities of modern football. That lack of greater football intelligence off the pitch reflected – and resulted in – a lack of greater football intelligence on the pitch.
That is why this has happened. What Solskjaer was doing was unsustainable at the top level. The players have always liked him but doubts have long persisted over the approach. Most of them have worked under top names. They are easily able to compare. The contrasts became too sharp this season.
That could be sensed in comments like that of David De Gea after Watford. “We don’t know what to do with the ball. We don’t know how to defend properly.”
It is a simply remarkable statement for a key player at one of the world’s biggest clubs, but it was only making public what was already being complained about in private. After the 1-1 draw at home to Everton in early October, one other influential player went straight into the dressing room and just shouted “the same problems every week”.
Solskjaer just had no idea how to fix them. That’s why it unravelled so quickly. The initial balance that sustains these things just went. There were too many structural issues. Opposition players were amazed at how “easy” United were to play against. This reflected a wider review within the game. Put bluntly, there was little football respect for Solskjaer as a manager. Rivals were content United were persisting with what amounted to an experiment. It didn’t lead to many conclusions other than the folly of it all. There were in-game disputes among the coaching staff – most conspicuously against Young Boys in United’s opening Champions League group match in September – some of whom have been given new contracts of their own, all of them set to stay on.
It should be acknowledged that this wasn’t exactly Solskjaer’s idea of the team at the end. He wanted a defensive midfielder, and felt at one point they were getting Declan Rice. Solskjaer didn’t envisage Ronaldo in all his planning. The Norwegian wasn’t 100 per cent sold on the idea of signing him, either, but he spoke with Sir Alex Ferguson and ultimately felt such a goalscorer would give him a better chance of victory.
It hasn’t turned out that way. It has just exacerbated structural flaws in the team. It’s been a disruptor. Mason Greenwood was supposed to be used in the middle more this season, and has been a little put out that has been changed.
The wider point still persists, though. A better manager, with a greater football imagination, could have figured this out. That was beyond Solskjaer. It is why so many of their rivals are now way ahead of United. The illusion of competitiveness has evaporated.
Because, when you get right down to it, as one of the biggest clubs in the world, United are essentially in an arms race with their rivals. Three of them and now Tottenham Hotspur have appointed elite managers, perhaps the four best in the world right now. United did not. They had someone with no pedigree as a coach. They now have no coach at all.
The Independent has been told that the decision was agreed upon at around 9pm on Saturday night. Final details just had to be sorted, including the wording. People at the club are keen to say Solskjaer hasn’t been “sacked”.
The wording of the eventual statement is interesting, though. “Michael Carrick will now take charge of the team for forthcoming games, while the club looks to appoint an interim manager to the end of the season.”
There is an argument that this is the first astute move the club have made over the position in some time. They can’t get a top name right now, so it is better to wait until the summer. That should open the way for Erik ten Hag or Mauricio Pochettino. And who knows in football? Maybe another option will present itself by then.
They’d love Diego Simeone, but now that is even more difficult than Zinedine Zidane, who most sources were dismissing as an option. He does not currently want it.
Much of this depends on United’s readiness. As club figures were still briefing about what a good job Solskjaer had done an hour after they’d got rid of him, there was also an insistence that the football structure of the club is “much stronger today than it was three years ago”. They point to the roles of John Murtough as football director and Darren Fletcher as technical director. Others in the game would say all of that depends on who actually makes the football decisions, and whether it is still just Woodward, Richard Arnold, the club’s group managing director, and co-owner Joel Glazer.
One thing is already obvious. They need to be cold about this. They need to separate what happens this season with what is best for the medium-term future of the club. They need to get away from messiah complexes, and outdated ideas about tradition and culture. They need to look like a modern club.
Back in October 2019, Woodward spoke privately about how they want to do things differently to Manchester City and Liverpool, even though these have long been examples of best practice in England. That requires serious re-assessment, as does their whole idea of a cultural reset.
Because, bar just spending more money on a bigger squad, they are back where they started. They need to avoid all of the mistakes of Solskjaer’s time, right back to the decision to appoint him.
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