The 1-6 scoreline was flattering to Manchester United. It is rare to feel any relief after such a defeat, but somewhere deep within, United’s coaches and players would know they got off easier than their performance warranted. In his post-match interview for the host broadcaster, Jose Mourinho’s characteristic smirk was milder than usual, possibly betraying disbelief at what he had just seen.
Similar disbelief was writ large on Solskjaer’s face too, but it was flanked by despondency and hurt. He was attentive to the interviewers for every question, looking straight at them with a raised left eyebrow, but as soon as the mic was pointed at him, his face pivoted downwards. You felt sorry that he had to explain a performance more suited to sketch comedy than football.
What could he say about Pogba’s tackle for the final penalty, or Maguire’s takedown of Luke Shaw for the first goal, that could sound like a plausible explanation? Sir Alex Ferguson once spoke about how Solskjaer used to take notes while sitting on the substitution bench. You would trust Solskjaer to have noted the number of different ways Spurs could have scored those six goals, and how many more chances they let go.
Take the Pogba tackle, for example. It was a callous lunge, which, for a second, seemed like it was only intended to give away a penalty. But look at the spaces left behind the United defence. Ben Davies or Dele Alli could have lifted the ball over to the open Lucas Moura. Pogba’s tackle just saved them the effort.
Or think of the seconds before the fourth goal. The ball is still in the midfield but United’s defence is already in disarray. Luke Shaw has, for no apparent reason, drifted off to the centre of defence. Spurs play the ball out to Serge Aurier, who now has four options – slide it through for Son’s run, cross it to the near-post for Eric Lamela, cross it to the far-post for Ben Davies, or play the ball to Harry Kane.
Irrespective of your club loyalties, you probably need a laughter break before discussing Tottenham’s first goal. The meme videos will show Maguire bringing down Luke Shaw just as Shaw was about to clear the ball, but they won’t show Maguire giving the ball away twice before from relatively safer situations, leading to the goalmouth mess. You can colour this in any shade of your choice—brain fade, a break in concentration, lack of spatial awareness—and each of them will look equally bad.
If this performance existed in isolation, in its own bubble so to speak, you could dismiss this as one of those days. You won’t see a similar discussion happening about Liverpool, even though their scoreline on the night outdid United’s in every possible way. The odd collective breakdown can happen to the best. But when you consider United’s performance against Spurs as an extension of what happened against Brighton and Crystal Palace, the Jaws theme music will automatically start playing in your head.
An organised defence has been Ole Solskjaer’s trump card so far. Most of his victories against the top six—to his credit, he does have a few—have come through a tight-ish defence and slick attacking thrust on the counter. In fact, that is the kind of matchup Solskjaer has preferred in his time here. Contrary to what Gary and Rio and Patrice will tell you, Solskjaer’s United are extremely defensive. They like sitting back and waiting for the opposition to give them spaces to run into. Against deep, tight defences, his teams have lacked the creative ability to consistently open up spaces on their own.
The three Premier League matches so far this season have shown ample signs that defensive solidity isn’t quite United’s strength right now. You may, justifiably, want to give United the benefit of doubt owing to a forced jump from the previous season to this one without the conditioning and cohesion exercises that a good pre-season provides. Athletes are creatures of routine and their schedules have undoubtedly been impacted due to the pandemic. But Maguire, Bailly, Lindelof, Shaw, and Wan Bissaka have been playing together for more than twelve months. Basic communication should ideally not be a problem. Tactical and spatial awareness cannot begin from zero every season.
The kind of mistakes United made against Spurs weren’t incidental. They point to an equal malaise in coaching and technical ability. If the coaching team’s one true strength has vaporised, and penetration in the final third is still a work-in-progress, what exactly are they bringing to the table right now? It will be harsh to blame them for Pogba’s amusement-park slide or Maguire not knowing how to prevent a quick free-kick, but why is maintaining line and position such an Achilles heel for England’s most successful football club?
The easy and lazy answer will point towards the board and cite a broken recruitment process. Last weekend, after referee Anthony Taylor blew the whistle to end United’s misery, one camera operative immediately panned to CEO Ed Woodward sitting alone in the Director’s Box. Behind the protective mask, his expression seemed blank, preparing for the impending public onslaught that follows every United loss.
While recruitment has been a problem for a long time, it is one of the many creaking parts of this football team. Credit where due: Ole Solskjaer has never sought excuses after a defeat, but there are tougher questions he must face right now. They may not come from the myopic, close-knit bunch of friends sitting in neon-lit studios; not least from the adoring United fanbase, who will look away during such times because he was a fantastic football player twenty years back; but they have to come from the people he is answerable to.
For perspective, United managed 66 points last season – the same tally Louis van Gaal was fired for, and only two more than they managed in the much-maligned season under David Moyes. In Solskjaer’s eighteen months as a full-time manager, there have been a handful of games where United have looked to be heading upwards, and most of them came in the weeks after Bruno Fernandes arrived and added new creative options. The patterns are achingly similar. Once teams start reading his pet tactic, Solskjaer seems to hit a brick wall. Worse still, there is no evidence to suggest that he has it in him to sort this out from a coaching perspective.
The board, themselves, have much to answer for. Once again, in the face of clear inadequacy, they have failed to reinforce United’s roster. They spent so much time and attention on one marquee signing that they failed to account for the many other gaps in the United jigsaw that needed filling. But there, clearly, is one more question staring at them, should they choose to look straight.
If they were to make the decision again today, would they hire Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as a full-time manager?