Was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Reign At Manchester United A Success Or Failure?

“Very low.”

It appears that the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer era at Manchester United is over, following the news that was breaking last night that the club are readying an official announcement.

It is a sad day for the club as most supporters of any football club would love nothing better than to enjoy success with a club legend as manager – for United supporters, there is a special relationship with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a forward who never gave up when it seemed his place in the squad was lost.

This attitude was present in his seminal moment in football history, scoring the winning goal in the 1999 European Cup Final, and it was present in his fightback from a career-threatening injury to return for a beautiful swansong in an interrupted career that lasted 11 years as a player.

For sure, it would have meant so much if a player who had shown such resilience, a man so in tune with the club’s ideology, could have brought success to Old Trafford in a meaningful way.

It is not to be. Solskjaer will be dismissed under the usual terminology of mutual agreement, leaving fans to argue the toss over two points. Was his work a success or was it a failure?

It was one thing to watch Liverpool and then Manchester City inflict deeply humiliating defeats on United at Old Trafford. It was another to watch a team with a spine comprised of players who were peripheral youngsters who wouldn’t quite make it at Old Trafford – Ben Foster, Craig Cathcart, Tom Cleverley and Josh King – all of whom had played or trained under Solskjaer as reserve team manager.

The symbolism was matched by the sight of club captain and Solskjaer signing Harry Maguire being sent off after being caught out by Cleverley, and after weeks of criticism that were followed by an ‘answering the critics’ celebration following a goal against international minnows.

Of course, this is the pattern of the last few weeks, and it follows almost three years in the job – longer than any post-Ferguson manager, but without a single trophy.

That’s a damning indictment for some. After spending over £400m, there was an expectation of at least one trophy to demonstrate some tangible progress or achievement alongside the best consecutive league performance of any post-Ferguson manager.

That league performance has come loaded with caveats. Okay, so they came third in 2020. Their second place finish of 2021 came against a Liverpool team who had significant injury issues and a Chelsea team who had a terrible start under Frank Lampard.

There are many who question the quality of many of Solskjaer’s signings, and those same people will contest the quality of the football is poorer than under Van Gaal or Mourinho.

They question the tactics which too often seemed pragmatic or cautious. It will be asked why certain players were persevered with long after it seemed their career at the club was over.

They will use examples of the recent performances against Liverpool, City and Watford, those results which serve as the strongest indication of the severity and terminal nature of this era, holding them as the worst performances since 2013.

None of the above can really be argued – you can argue the toss, certainly over the standard of football under Van Gaal or Mourinho, but from a subjective point of view people are entitled to see things their own way and there was enough substance to not make these points of view completely unreasonable.

Most people would accept that a league title push was beyond this squad this season because of its weak midfield and poor squad depth in defence, but – and this is a fact that Solskjaer himself invited – expectations were ultimately raised after the signings of Varane and, in particular, Ronaldo.

Regardless of the midfield issue, time is a factor – three years was a reasonable time to expect United to challenge. This was the issue facing Solskjaer, so it’s easy to see why he felt it was safer to face that with Ronaldo than without him.

Expectations were raised now to what is the historical standard of the club – and the team have fallen well below those expectations, with the manager’s inexperience of navigating difficult periods in such a spotlight showing itself in the erratic squad management of recent weeks.

There was no punishment for poor performance or indiscipline, as we’ve seen – for differing reasons – the likes of Maguire, Shaw, Matic, Pogba, Martial and Lingard all struggle to handle the increase in demand on their contribution. These were all players expected to make some contribution as crucial squad players. Four of them were playing yesterday, and the fifth would have been if fit. They can do what they want, and play how they want, seemingly impervious to the repercussions.

Matic smiled after missing a chance at 0-2. Maguire walked off and it’s fair to say most would think he was more worried about what people were going to say than he was distraught and ready to take responsibility for this latest error.

Lingard posted on social media about playing for another club on the same day it was reported that he wouldn’t sign a new contract – leaving many connected with the club baffled – and yet twenty-four hours later he was on the pitch.

All of this is on the shoulders of the manager, whose decisions in recent weeks include the double introduction of Sancho and Van De Beek with three minutes left at Atalanta with the score at 1-2.

They were the decisions of a man panicking, completely at odds with his considered and at times frustratingly patient approach.

This happens in football. This is part of the process. All but two of Manchester United’s post-war managers have lost their job through poor performance.

You would probably be safe estimating that 95% of managerial reigns end in dismissal, which suggests things have gone wrong on the pitch, so it doesn’t take a particularly insightful observer to say that it was wrong from day one when you consider the likely end in football managerial reigns coupled with the inexperience Solskjaer had at this level before taking the job.

When it has come to the crunch, that inexperience has cruelly shown, and in the worst possible way against the worst possible opponents.

Where does that leave Manchester United now? How will history define the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer period? As a failure, a success or somewhere in between?

It’s impossible to ignore the comparison to the Wilf McGuinness era. Here was a man so steeped in what the club means and represents but simply unable to translate that in an effective way that was manifested in performances.

Senior players lost trust in the authority that he commanded – but we could look at this factor and now point the finger squarely back at the owners and Ed Woodward, because this is a problem that has gone right back to the Van Gaal era.

If we are to believe Van Gaal there was conflict over transfer targets with Woodward pulling rank and it’s common knowledge that Woodward and Mourinho had a major conflict in the summer of 2018 over the futures of Martial or Pogba.

It didn’t need hindsight to put a fair argument that allowing the manager to move those players on would have sent a strong message of standards in the dressing room – and it doesn’t need an expert to explain the damage done by undermining the manager and then, months later, dismissing him in order to placate those players.

This was a systemic interference issue that accompanied the pattern we’ve seen many times – enough investment for the club to challenge for the Champions League spaces, a crucial lack of investment when the club were ready to make a step forward on at least one occasion under the last three managers and, for the last two managers, long contracts handed out with clearly no long-term thought only then for the manager to be dismissed with no clear successor in place.

The easiest argument thrown at Solskjaer is that for £400m there should be a trophy delivered. The flimsiness of said argument falls away easily when you respond that City have spent roughly the same in the same period, invested in a stronger squad than what Solskjaer inherited, with a better manager, so they should now have that expectation instead.

The secondary argument is whether more should be expected. It’s fair to expect progress similar to Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool given the resources. It hasn’t happened and that’s one reason why United are now looking for a new manager.

Has anyone really expected United to win a league under Solskjaer in the full seasons he had? No. European Cup? No. An FA Cup, League Cup or Europa League? Sure – he’s been criticised for that and it’s part of the reason why United are looking for a new manager.

It’s also fair to point out, however, that Solskjaer was a penalty save and penalty kick away from winning a Europa League, thus nullifying the argument of the Mourinho cult – and, like Mourinho, it would have ultimately been a trophy that counted for little, because United’s true progress is measured by a consistent evaluation of how they are doing in the league, as it should be.

Mourinho’s and Solskjaer’s final few months followed superficially comparable implosions – that the squad was missing at least one crucial investment, and performances dropped off a cliff at a moment where many were wondering if the manager could prove his own value – a not completely unreasonable expectation, considering their second place finishes and the fact that the squads had been strengthened.

The point is that improvement could still be expected when projected against the reality of it being a 20 team league and the destination of a title being determined by the accumulation of points in the games against the other 17 non-Champions League teams. Even if then, like now, there was an acceptance that Liverpool were better, that didn’t explain the sizeable regressions.

Solskjaer has done plenty of good. He inherited a deeply unhappy dressing room and a bad mood around the club with staff and has turned that around. Many staff with links to the club were brought back, investment was made on youth restructuring as long term planning resumed following a four year hiatus. These are a couple of the day-to-day benefits that often get overlooked and undervalued.

As for the football? Well, let’s be fair about it. It was a fantastic start in terms of results but in terms of performances, there wasn’t really much other than the win over Cardiff and first half against Huddersfield. What gave many cause for optimism in the early months of Solskjaer’s interim reign was his tactical plans – different shapes, too – that were both proactive and yielded results in big games.

He made big calls in moving on Lukaku and Sanchez in his first summer. It needed Fernandes’ arrival and a lockdown to galvanise the first true run of great football and it was fair to ask the question if that football was being played because of there being no crowds.

After finishing 3rd, United then had a couple of purple patches in the following season, albeit with some worrying moments.

The season had started in extremely worrying fashion – that third place finish was not supported with proper investment. The club briefed the pandemic as the reason for not spending – but still withdrew dividends, and, when United lost 6-1 to Spurs, the owners sanctioned a panic spend which completely undermined all of the talk about steady long-term planning.

Van De Beek, Telles, Cavani, Pellstri and Diallo were brought in. The spend might reach a reported £110m if bonuses are triggered. It will be interesting to see how little the club receive from that quintet once their respective careers are over at the club.

From that moment on it was clear that Solskjaer would be subjected to the same constraints as Mourinho and Van Gaal – backing with a caveat, at the whim of owners still much more interested in the opportunity to use the club to line their own pockets.

Solskjaer’s big achievement from the following months was to take something that looked untenable and pull it around – United rallied to finish second, at one point in January looking like they might challenge, only for the owners to refuse to provide transfer funds.

United managed some good results in some big games – these were pragmatic performances, though, and the hope was that things were moving along to a solid platform where the additions could come in to make this more proactive.

There was a significant issue unfolding – the players who, simply put, were the difference between United challenging and not challenging for the major honours. The trust Solskjaer placed in these players was always likely to define his reign for better or worse.

The manager finished with a first choice team and formation, which was some achievement considering no manager since 2013 had done so, and it was undoubtedly this settlement that helped the consistency to earn a second placed finish. In the team it was clear that a crossing winger was needed, a defender was crucial, and at least one midfielder was required in order to move United from being a reactive team to a proactive one.

The ‘backing with a caveat’ strategy was evident this summer.

Yes, the manager was backed with a much-needed defender. Yes, he had coveted Sancho. But with a midfielder still needed, the brief from the club was that the well was dry – until the opportunity to sign Ronaldo came along, providing a short term chance for serious inflation on the club’s value which the owners could exploit.

A strong owner with fair interest in the club would have used that opportunity to speculate to accumulate and get some substance in to accompany the style – but no, over £100m of generated shares as a response of that new signing went straight to the owners and not back into the club.

All this on the back of conversations with supporters where greater transparency was promising. It was dishonest, disingenuous and simply disgraceful – more robbery in plain sight.

Still, with a strengthened squad, better things were expected. The finger of judgment is always ultimately pointed at the manager and for all the reasons listed above, that’s why United are now in the process of finding a new one.

It’s a tremendously sad day for anyone who loves United because nobody really wanted it to end this way.

I’m gutted, I don’t mind admitting. I feel the same sadness as I did when everyone knew what was going on when Van Gaal was sacked.

How can a serious club go on like this? How can we be so negligent to issues that seem so obvious?

It’s the same disillusion that I felt when Mourinho was sacked, a few months after being given a new contract, then not being properly backed, and then dismissed without any idea of a proper successor in place. How can we trust in an ownership structure that makes these decisions?

We can’t.

All we can do is try to evaluate what the managers they employ do, and try to do so as fairly as possible, not absolving them of their fallbacks but trying to contextualise them, in the environment they are made to work, in a role that is already the most high profile in the game with all the issues that entails.

Solskjaer without question leaves the club in a better position than the one he found – there is a fair amount of quality, some squad players ready to move on without too much hassle in the likes of Lingard, Martial and Pogba which will hopefully help the long-term harmony of the dressing room and that should consequently free up some funds to strengthen (though it’s beginning to look clear that maybe a couple of defenders at least will be necessary alongside a new midfielder now).

There’s no toxicity, at least, and in the coming days there is going to have to be some serious responsibility taken by the players without the outgoing manager there to take the flak.

No, he didn’t win a trophy, and yes, £400m+ was spent, and yes, the results and performances in recent weeks have been the worst since Ferguson. Yes, it’s damning that the manager’s own signings and success stories have fallen so dramatically. That’s why – to labour the point – he is losing his job.

It can’t be deemed a success, because no major trophy was won. Those who want to defend his work will cite the third and second place finishes. There will be those who point to two second-tier trophies alongside a sixth placed league finish under Mourinho as being more successful.

It’s all failure dressed in different clothes paid for by the common denominators in each of these stories.

It is still, theoretically, a good situation for a manager, with all the experience that Solskjaer lacks, to inherit.

The question is can we trust the board to make the right decision in terms of a replacement, and can we trust them to support him even if they do?

All the evidence points to no – making this an even more sad day in the history of the club we all love.

Wayne Barton

Wayne is a writer and producer. His numerous books on Manchester United include the family-authorised biography of Jimmy Murphy. He wrote and produced the BT Sport films 'Too Good To Go Down' in 2018, and 'True Genius', in 2021, both adapted from his books of the same name. In 2015 he was described by the Independent as the 'leading writer on Manchester United' and former club chairman Martin Edwards has described him as 'the pre-eminent writer on the club'.

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