It comes to something when you’re praying for Manchester United to stop playing so you can get back to the tedium of the US election.
When it comes to United you’re surely getting the same feeling as I am; that feeling that we’ve seen it all before, only dressed slightly differently, as if you’re watching the same movie that’s been remade by Rob Zombie with added gore and unnecessary squeamish moments.
If you can remember Everton under David Moyes, Norwich under Louis van Gaal, and Spurs, Brighton and West Ham under Jose Mourinho – and why shouldn’t you – you’ll know where I’m coming from when I say that the first goal conceded in Turkey yesterday is up there with the worst we’ve let in in modern memory.
One of my best friends sent me a message. “That first goal worries me.”
My reply : “Why? Can’t blame anyone if no-one is there.” (Allow the meme, please!)
The serious response is that of course it is a concerning goal to concede because it belongs in the class of the above games. That’s where yesterday’s match will rank.
And that’s, effectively, the point of no return for Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, unless the club do something they’ve never done before, and that’s give the manager the chance to complete the weeding out instead of indulging star names who are simply not good enough, feeding this feeling that the players are better than they are if only they are coached by a better manager.
To an extent it’s a logical solution but it also comes laced with contradictions.
There’s no doubt that confidence is so low at the club that the knives are out for most of Solskjaer’s buys. Harry Maguire has been subject to criticism for most of 2020, so too Daniel James, but even Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Bruno Fernandes are consumed in this difficult start to the season and while it’s too early to judge Donny Van De Beek it’s clear that there are some troubles there.
That’s before we even get on to deadline day signings which undermined all of these suggestions we’ve been fed about long term planning.
That was the line given to us by the club in order to justify more patience.
It’s not been a completely worthless exercise. There are some who will say we’ve gone backwards, there’s been no improvement, the management is holding the club back, that patience is only given through nostalgia. That Ole doesn’t know what he’s doing.
Look, the bar is definitely not very high, but have we all forgotten losing to Southampton at home without getting a shot on target? Have we all forgotten how horribly toxic it was at the start of the 2018/19 season? How could you, when such a large element of that still exists in our fanbase?
In his first full season Ole reached third in the league and got to two semi-finals. It was not where United want to be but there was progress. In the midst of that progress we watched – without question – the best football the club have played since Sir Alex Ferguson.
We also have watched as Ole executed tactical plans – with an ever-changing squad of players in the midst of different transitions and injury crises – to win at Spurs, Arsenal, Paris, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea again, Manchester City, City again, against Spurs again, Paris again. He comprehensively beat Julian Nagelsmann, tipped to be vastly superior.
These were not the game plans of a PE teacher and it happened too often against too many top teams to be one-offs. I’m sorry that this is an inconvenient truth and indisputable matter of fact to those who want to believe Ole is completely out of his depth.
There is a definite distinction between that and the job being too big for him. Going by the reservations I had when he first got the job, I would say he has massively overachieved what I expected to happen. But it does appear evident that the job is too big for him because when the going gets tough, he has placed a lot of trust in his players to turn it around.
He has played the ostensibly best players in the formation that fits as many of them in as he can in home games. It worked for a while. But he trusted it for too long without changing it up and it became predictable and easy to play against. He is in the process of trying to find a new formation now; the question is whether or not he will have enough time to build something cohesive before results and players get the better of him.
Solskjaer, like Mourinho, has tried different ways to get a tune out of Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial. Sometimes it’s worked. Others – usually when it really mattered – it hasn’t. He has used the incompatibility of the squad he inherited to find solutions. Sometimes it’s worked. Others, it hasn’t, and when it hasn’t, it has almost always looked like the bunch of misfits that it is, a squad composed by five different managers with different ideas of how to play football. We can say Solskjaer is failing in that respect but no more than Van Gaal or Mourinho did because we saw similarly poor defensive performances under them when the tide began to turn for good. It is not, then, a matter of inexperience, and it suggests the issue, as it always appeared to be, rests with the squad.
It’s not a squad that is equipped for a title challenge. It’s a squad equipped for a top four fight and would qualify for the Champions League with a fair wind; a squad that’s much of a muchness along with Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs, Everton, Wolves, Leicester and maybe one or two surprise packages. That fair wind is a fixture list that gives momentum, suspensions, injuries, all the variables that impact every single football team.
From a footballing perspective yesterday’s defeat appears as if it was the point of no return because of the nature of the goals conceded. There was nobody there to take responsibility – a common complaint about this defence. But at least in most professional games there are defenders there. There is no professional coach that works on set pieces where they arrange it so that no players are back to cover. Accountability has to go to the players even if the buck stops with the manager.
Because it does. It was a matter of grave concern with the writing on the wall when Eric Bailly played against Spurs. The selection itself should have rung alarm bells for everyone regardless of what happened in the game. Bailly was picked ahead of the transfer deadline, ahead of Victor Lindelof. Solskjaer is a coach who has shown patience to the point of infuriating supporters. Why did he persist with Pereira? Why did he persist with Ighalo? Why with James? Why with Lindelof? Why with Shaw? Well, it was obvious that it was because there were no better alternatives, until there were. And when there weren’t, the changes came reluctantly. So when Bailly was picked because Lindelof had suffered a poor start to the season, we knew that a new centre half would not be arriving, even though one was desperately needed.
That meant relying on defenders signed by numerous different managers who had proven not to be good enough. It was briefed in the summer of 2018 that another wasn’t signed despite Mourinho being desperate for one because he had signed Bailly and Lindelof and they weren’t working out. So Mourinho went. But Bailly and Lindelof remain two years later. As do Jones and Rojo. The same excuse – too many senior defenders – was used this summer. You can question the decision to give Jones a new contract but you can also note the manager’s intention when the former Blackburn man was omitted from the squad. He’s not part of the plans, but he remains as a noose around the neck of the boss because Ed Woodward refused to sanction the signing of a defender this summer.
This has played out in front of us – we’ve seen it. We’ve seen Solskjaer stick with a settled team so we know when he changes the defence it’s for good reason. It was incomprehensible that Solskjaer would go into this season without that most urgent of signings; a matter of grave negligence from the club who, when consolidating third place was a viable option, decided that the gamble for anywhere between 3rd and 10th was the season United were going to have.
Solskjaer has made changes. The inconsistency we all knew was there has been present.
The progress of the last year has been completely undermined and almost effectively undone because now we are in a position where some players don’t need to be accountable. There are players at United who can afford to coast because they know the manager’s inexperience is being used against him; unforgivable, as the number of good results are certain proof that he is much better than the credit that’s been given.
Those good results have come where he has demonstrated his tactical nous and concentrated on the game plan and given instruction rather than trusting the player’s instinct. That is usually anathema to Manchester United but it is what they have needed to be at their best because it is a group of players with a sense of self-worth which is greater than the reality and the track record of all of their careers is enough evidence to prove that. Too many supporters believe the hype.
He’s also improved players, despite what has been said to the contrary. Luke Shaw has been at his best – again, not a high bar – under Solskjaer. Matic went from exiled outcast to someone whose talents have been so properly utilised that even his lack of energy hasn’t made it feel like he should be second choice behind McTominay and Fred, two more players who have come on leaps and bounds. There is Marcus Rashford, much more mature and confident now. Martial, again with the caveat of high bars and expectations, registered his best ever goal return last season.
And his signings all made positive contributions from the start before regressing to the mean.
And that’s the point, isn’t it, really? If the manager – whoever the manager is, and we saw this with Van Gaal in the summer of 2016 when he was shamefully sacked (I’m talking about the nature and the timing, not the decision), Mourinho in 2018, and Solskjaer this year – isn’t properly backed to oversee his transition, there one of two messages sent to the squad (if not both) : the first, that the ambition to be the best isn’t really there, and the second, that there is no long term investment in the manager.
We are seeing the result of both of those, as much as we are seeing an ineffectual plan B, which is – as it has always been for the last four or five years – the misfit squad of players mishmashed together. What else is there to expect?
Mourinho stayed long enough to become the cause of his downfall. It was inexplicable that he should have been given a three year contract in the January and not backed in the summer, but by the time he was dismissed in December, there was no argument that his existence at the club was becoming corrosive.
Whilst some might see it as time for Solskjaer to lose his job, and whilst I certainly agree that we are at a point where it is inevitable, I still feel as though he is not the primary reason for this failure. My personal feeling is that I as a supporter have seen enough to invest faith in what he is building, but that the club don’t share that faith, because if they did, he would have been backed properly in the summer.
Even if you take the shameful dividend episode into account, even if you are sympathetic to the excuse about the pandemic, there was surely a much better to way to invest the money that was spent, and I’m sorry, but I’ll never be convinced that the transfer activity this summer was part of a long term plan and therefore that it was the first choice of Solskjaer. He – like all of us – have been let down by those above him.
And so we enter that cycle of short football memories, where we are only a month away from the transfer window closing, and the poor performances we have seen make it increasingly likely that Solskjaer will be sacked because he will be held primarily responsible for the regression.
He’s the manager – he shares accountability. Of course he does. Most of the above may seem like an impassioned defence but as I said, I was never convinced he was the right man, and I have said that at numerous different points when things were going well or not. I have supported the manager and I don’t think it’s blind faith or illogical, for the reasons I’ve outlined above.
The point I return to is whether I think another manager could do better in this scenario than him. Ultimately I say no, because we have seen two of the most experienced and successful managers of all time struggle, and I look at United’s third placed finish and say that last season was probably an overachievement.
People say there’s been no progression.
At the end of last season there was a clear starting XI (that needed improving upon), a good standard of play (if inconsistent) and a third place with two semi-finals.
In my eyes it was the healthiest we have seemed on the playing side since Sir Alex retired. You might argue that Jose in 2018 had us in a similar position. I’d be inclined to agree with the caveat of him already proving to be difficult and the fact that long-term health for a Jose Mourinho side is not always long-term health for a football team. And, of course, the quality of football was simply rank.
Still, if overachievement is possible, then you want to see a repeat of it at least. When you see regression – as we undoubtedly have – you then must hold the manager to account. It’s whether or not regression is acceptable or expected. There are many supporters (I’m one of them) that would have expected that it could be possible simply because of the overachievement. But standing still in football is moving backwards. And if you don’t strengthen the squad adequately you are likely to pay the consequence.
And so I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels sickened and defeated by the hypocritical standard, presented almost like a kangaroo court, where those more guilty for placing us in this situation are going to hold someone else accountable. Again.
They’ve handcuffed him and told him to do the same as he did before; when he has been unable to do so, they’ve presented him in handcuffs to the gallery.
It was bad enough when they did it to Mourinho – I was one who thought we hired him three years too late, I was still happy when he got the job, but it was the right decision to let him go. It was horrible to see them do it to Van Gaal.
But – and this is where nostalgia really does kick in – it turns the stomach to see what they’ve done to Solskjaer, hiring him because he was convenient and cheap, letting him oversee a massive turnover, watching as he over-performed, refusing to back him and then holding him accountable.
My concern was that Ole would damage his legacy by coming in to take charge of a club stuck in this predictable and inevitable cycle. He hasn’t – he’s overachieved, even though I still think the job is too big for him – and I am certainly not going to let the people above him damage his legacy in my eyes, even if they have been successful in doing that in the eyes of others who cannot see that they’ve been manipulated into thinking any manager could be successful in this set up despite all the hard evidence to the contrary.
Solskjaer isn’t blameless. Maguire without a complementary partner looks a poor fit for United. The defence is just as big an emergency as it was when he signed and the manager is now partly responsible for it, just as the people above him and his predecessors are. A better plan B or an alternative plan A isn’t there and even though I would give him patience to mould it, time isn’t on his side, and I accept most other fans don’t think another six months or so to create that is reasonable.
The worst part of all is that last night seems like evidence that the players are not on his side anymore. That doesn’t mean they’re against him. It means that they know change is coming so they’re going through the motions. They can afford to.
The man who can’t afford that is the one who pays the price. At Manchester United, though, it’s rarely the man who should.