Ole Had to Go, but United Have Deeper Issues

And so, after a stretch of performances that can be labelled as a total suspension of talent and intelligence, Manchester United’s Solskjaer Experiment is over. Last night’s deflating loss—the kind where a 1-4 scoreline is generous—at Watford left the United board with no choice but to react.

Watford’s fourth goal was emblematic of Solskjaer’s diminishing influence on his team. There is no way he could have instructed Anthony Martial to take a loose touch inside his half, or asked Jadon Sancho to be jogging back instead of pressing the fast Watford forwards. In the same breath, United’s lack of structure in defensive transitions cost them again. They did not have enough players covering for a counter. That, one has to admit, lands on the manager. Joao Pedro’s strike was more a death knell than a goal.

Shouldn’t have had to come to this

Sack is a cruel word, especially in top-flight football with trigger-happy owners. Watford, funnily enough, are a bright example of that. Claudio Ranieri is their 20th managerial appointment over the last thirteen years. And yet, in situations like the one United find themselves in, it feels inevitable. It felt that way after the Liverpool defeat at Old Trafford, and after the humiliation against City, when Guardiola’s men played out a training session at their rivals’ patch. 

It should have felt uneasy after the losses to Leicester and Aston Villa and Everton, or the absolute schooling against Young Boys. The much-celebrated last-minute rescue acts against Villarreal, West Ham, and Atalanta should have prompted questioning of the team’s structure that allowed games to stretch that deep. Instead, all we got to hear was lazy rhetoric about character and passion.

“Ronaldo always scores when it matters,” Ole Solskjaer said after the Champions’ League matches. I don’t have a degree in Applied Mathematics, but it seems that one goal in seven league games does not quite fit the definition of always.

And these speeches, in a way, symbolised the blind faith with which this team was being run. One could understand the importance of a light touch to rise from the debris Mourinho left behind, maybe even the early part of last season. But at some point, someone within the coaching group at United had to realise that the rest of the league was catching on to their trick.

Last season, Crystal Palace, Brighton, Tottenham, and Sheffield United—three of them at Old Trafford—laid down the template for stifling this United team. That this template can be followed successfully, twelve months on, by Southampton, Wolves, and Aston Villa, makes Solskjaer’s coaching look dire. 

Every team has their chinks, fleeting or structural. Good coaches iron them out, even if it might take a few months to start showing results. Manchester United are currently wrestling with many of the problems that plagued them under Mourinho, never mind the early tenure of Solskjaer. They are easy meat on defensive transitions and suffer from a terrible lack of ideas once you reduce space for their forwards to run onto. These were the problems that Sevilla took advantage of in 2018. Three years and a substantial renovation of the team later, bottom-table teams are ripping United off.

In Solskjaer’s defence, his credentials of building a complete team should have been evaluated before he was hastily handed the full-time contract. Instead, after a mazy run of games that included an insane night at Paris, everyone just got carried away. It felt like United had accidentally unearthed their version of Barcelona’s Guardiola. Minus the meticulous preparation, of course, but shhh, don’t say that out loud. As the last 30 months have summarily exhibited, it takes a lot to become a Guardiola. United, Arsenal, Chelsea have all tried; none of them have succeeded so far.

To that end, Solskjaer has overachieved. Credit must be given where due. He should not have been able to finish second in the league or reach a European final. He is leaving the United team in a much better place than he found it, even if he hasn’t been able to fix a bunch of aching joints. It is not his fault that the club lost its vision and long-term strategy when Cristiano Ronaldo became available. Neither is it Ole’s fault that the club’s oracle, a man they all worship, started undermining his moves to a famous boxer. 

He isn’t asking Harry Maguire to suddenly forget how to mark or stall for five extra seconds on the ball. None of the players that he has so sincerely shielded stood up for him, on the pitch, over the last couple of months. Bruno Fernandes might look good gesturing to away fans, asking them to blame the players as much as the manager, but he needed to use some of that fire during the ninety minutes of football that could have eased some of the pressure. 

You could look at it two ways — one, the manager is not strong enough to command this dressing room, or two, the players are directionless on the pitch. Either way, it looks bad on Solskjaer and his coaching team. When it comes to a point where your rivals are slapping you around at your home turf, the guillotine will be rolled out. Football is a players’ game. In every such situation, it is always the manager who leaves. Some managers command respect through their body of work; Solskjaer, unfortunately, does not have that yet.

The problems at United will bother their next manager too. Whoever comes will have a minor mountain to climb while tying this team into a cohesive unit. He will have an array of elite attacking talent that does not put in adequate defensive work, a midfield that is bits-and-pieces at best, and a defence capable of great things but showing very little application of late. If United make another hasty decision, the ride could get even bumpier. One can only hope that the Director of Football, John Murtough, and Sir Alex Ferguson—you know he’s going to have a decisive say—pick someone who is actually competent and not merely a cheerleader for the public narrative of Manchester United.

And who knows, Solskjaer might just be a roaring success at his next job. He will have taken time off after a gig that he probably wanted too much. Through perspective and application, he might be able to spot the empty spaces in his tactical toolkit. 

Objectivity is a pipe dream in the tribal world of football, but the decision to let Solskjaer go was inevitable. Forget the fourth Watford goal, check out the other three and you will know.

Sarthak Dev

Computer engineer, pianist and writer; not necessarily in that order. Can kill for a good football story.