When The Manchester United Way Gets Blocked
Sharpen your pitchforks and prepare your green pens, everybody, because it’s “Manchester United in crisis” time again. Yesterday afternoon at Goodison Park, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team took their recent supine nature to its logical conclusion, allowing themselves to have their collective tummies tickled by an Everton team that continues to blow occasionally hot and occasionally cold in that infuriatingly inconsistent way that only Everton teams can. Their performance was outstanding. They bullied Manchester United’s midfield out of the game over the first half hour of the match and then closed the game out with admirable efficiency. Indeed, the most damning takeaway from the whole afternoon wasn’t the final four-nil scoreline – Everton’s biggest win against Manchester United in almost three and a half decades – but the fact that, on this occasion, there were no excuses. There was no amelioration that could be poured on it all by anybody. The evidence was laid out very clearly in front of us.
So, Occam’s Razor, then. Received wisdom told us that Jose Mourinho, no matter how much entertainment his King Lear-esque meltdowns might provide the rest of us, had to be replaced as the manager of Manchester United. It was presumably calculated that his behaviour was starting to impact on the bottom line. There was obvious problem for the club, though, in taking this action at this time. Managerial replacements aren’t easy to come by in the middle of a season, and the calibre of manager that Manchester United expect means that the likelihood of their finding their ideal replacement immediately is considerably diminished. The Manchester United press seemed to have decided that Mauricio Pochettino was the next-to-be anointed one, but getting him in while a season is in progress was always going to be impossible. So it was that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was brought in as the caretaker, to guide the team through the remainder of the season while
Pochettino was thoroughly tapped up with the willing complicity of vast swathes of the sympathetic media a thorough and forensic search was carried out for the ideal replacement.
There were, however, two faces to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer the coach, and when Manchester United’s team started to pick up results, one of these faces was willingly overlooked. On the one hand, Solskjaer is universally popular inside Old Trafford, was the scorer of one of the most important goals in the history of the club, and seemed to radiate a positivity that had been missing to the point of malnutrition under both Mourinho and his predecessor Louis Van Gaal. The players seemed to have reacted positively to his arrival at the club, and won fourteen of their first nineteen matches under his charge. This, however, only told a part of the a story. Solskjaer’s previous managerial experience had come in Norway with Molde, where he’d enjoyed reasonable success with two Tippeligaen league titles and a Norwegian cup, and at Cardiff City, where he’d walked into a firestorm of a club upon arriving there in January 2014, won just a handful of Premier League matches, and left the following September after a poor start to life back in the Championship following the inevitable relegation that came with the end of the 2013/14 season.
Concerns over Solskjaer’s track record at Cardiff were breezily brushed aside. That club at that time was a basket case. There was nothing he could have done against such a backdrop, and so on. But broader circumstances at Old Trafford haven’t changed since his appointment. Winning at PSG in the last sixteen of the Champions League was the sort of result that Manchester United supporters lap up, mainlined as it was straight into the “Myths & Legends” area that every fan has tucked away in our amygdalas. That winning a late penalty kick to snatch the win in Paris was – regardless of whether the actual penalty was merited or not – a little on fortuitous was ignored. The tepid nature of their home defeat in the first leg was noted but not acted upon. Ole was at the wheel, it had been decided, and a narrative feeding into Manchester United’s own sense of exceptionalism was already being built. Indeed, it was being built so quickly that what happened next became inevitable, even though it didn’t need to be.
On the 29th of March, Solskjaer was given the Manchester United manager’s job on a full-time basis. What had changed from the original plan didn’t seem entirely clear, other than that the team had seen an upswing in its form since his arrival. It was three and a half weeks since The Great Paris Escape, but there were already clouds on the horizon. The Champions League draw had pitted them against Barcelona, a match which few gave them much chance of winning, while an FA Cup defeat at Wolverhampton Wanderers and a Premier League loss at Arsenal had dented the steady start to his time as manager. It seems pretty much received wisdom now that the club jumped the gun with this decision. Everybody knew where they stood, and it was hardly as though Solskjaer was going to have his head turned by anybody else while there was still any chance whatsoever of him landing this particular gig. This skittishness within the club’s hierarchy had manifested itself before, when Louis Van Gaal was sacked in the immediate aftermath of winning the FA Cup in 2016, for example, but that didn’t make this decision any less surprising. There was, put simply, no need for Manchester United to offer Solskjaer this job at this time.
This decision was a hint at where the real problems rest within Old Trafford. As time passes and successive managers pass through the revolving door that the entrance to the manager’s office there has become since the retirement of Alex Ferguson, it has become increasingly clear that the biggest problem that Manchester United face as a football club is within what passes for its senior management structure. The club remains missing a director of football, a lynchpin in the structure of a modern football club, and the rushed decision by Ed Woodward to offer Solskjaer the managerial job when it was in no way necessary to do so now looks very much like the decision of a club that has no strategy and is just applying sticking plasters to whatever is placed immediately in front of it. It’s been seen in the club’s (lack of) transfer policy in recent years, where vast amounts of money have been splurged on marquee signings with little thought apparently having been put into how these expensive but sometimes fragile jigsaw pieces may be slotted together.
To a point, the team’s collapse in form starting at about the time that Solskjaer was given the job on a full-time basis is probably a coincidence, as much as anything else. Losing to Barcelona may have been a chastening reminder of how much work Manchester United have to do in order to get back in touch with European football’s elite, but it was hardly a surprise and could be partially dismissed as the most difficult draw that they could have got at this stage of this competition. But there have been other warning signs in their performances over the last couple of months as well. The defeat to Wolves in the FA Cup was followed up by losing again at Molineux in the league just a couple of weeks later, just four days after Solskjaer’s position was made permanent. They’d previously required two goals in the last four minutes to salvage a draw at home against Burnley, two penalty kicks to beat West Ham United at home, and a winning goal with two minutes to play in order to beat Southampton. It could be argued that both the Everton result and performance are what happens when the little flashes of good fortune run out and the opposition is motivated, has a decent plan and a bit of confidence, and takes its chances.
In one sense, the buck stops with Solskjaer, but there’s something deeper going on at Old Trafford. The players, lavishly paid and slathered with praise whenever they do anything right, didn’t really look as though they could be bothered at Goodison Park, while there’s nothing to indicate that the senior management of the club have learned any of the lessons of the last six years. Would it be surprising to see Manchester United break the bank to bring Jadon Sancho to Old Trafford in the summer whilst starting next season with Phil Jones and Chris Smalling remaining as their centre-defensive partnership? Probably not. But to a point, Manchester United have already put themselves in an unenviable position. The first team squad needs ripping out and starting again, but the money frittered away on luxury objects over the last six years – an era of huge wage and transfer fee inflation – while the unglamorous positions have been largely ignored has made this more expensive and complicated than it might otherwise have needed to be.
And then there’s the small matter of “The United Way.” All clubs mythologise their own histories to some extent or other, and sophisticated marketing departments and vast support-bases make this self-aggrandising easier at bigger clubs than at smaller ones. A club with the resources of Manchester United probably does have the right to expect a team that plays attractive football, but this has reached a different level of late, to a point at which there seems to almost be a belief that successfully being involved with the club can somehow alter one’s DNA. This idea is a strangely pervasive one – and yes, we know it’s not meant literally – and it’s likely that it played a part in the maelstrom of noise that was swirling around Old Trafford at the point that Solskjaer’s job was made permanent. No amount of “United DNA” will save a manager if the players aren’t good enough and don’t really look as though they can even be bothered. It seems extraordinary to even consider that professional footballers in this day and age could be so unprofessional as to be treating his apppointment as a couple of months on easy street before the end of the season, but their performances in recent weeks have certainly given that impression, and it’s not a look that reflects positively upon them.
Similarly, it’s not saying much for where Manchester United are at the moment that the one small current crumb of comfort from all of this is the growing belief that United will do little this week to prevent Manchester City winning the second derby match of the season. Under normal circumstances, potentially sending the Premier League trophy to The Etihad Stadium would be pretty much unacceptable, but with the alternative being it going to Anfield for the first time in twenty-nine years, the non-plussed attitude of a proportion of the club’s support starts to make somewhat more sense. But Manchester United being the kingmakers for others isn’t in the expected script for this club, either. Manchester United have a long way to go if they’re get anywhere near either Manchester City or Liverpool, and that inevitably stings. Furthermore, six years on from the retirement of Alex Ferguson, the club seems no closer to even having the structure to allow them to get any closer to the current best in England, and that’s before we even start to pay consideration to the rest of Europe.
For six years the club has been hurling ideas at the wall in the hope that something will somehow stick. It’s a policy that has failed, and it’s time that this was admitted by somebody within the club. Ripping it up and starting again is doable, but it requires a level of patience that modern football is ill-equipped to deal with. A new structure to identify the best players to operate within a system – yes, including reserves, youth team players, and the less glamourous positions on the pitch – with a coach dedicated to spending several seasons to fine-tuning it to work might just stand a chance of breaking the cycle of under-achievement that Manchester United have become in recent years. The smell of dry rot emanating from Old Trafford over the last few years has never been fully masked by the cloying scent of braggadocio, but a club with almost every advantage in an age during which money stratifies like never before should be able to complete the renovation it needs, providing the will is there to do so.
The vanity signings, however, have to stop, and the managerial merry-go-round has to slow. Something fundamental has to change. Because it increasingly feels as though elite level professional football has evolved more than many of us noticed over the last ten years, and that Manchester United have been left standing still, propped up in the Premier League by vast financial imbalance, but no closer to finding the right solution to be able to seriously challenge for the trophies that the club expects to challenge for than it was five years ago. Manchester City and Liverpool are disappearing over the horizon, and even Tottenham Hotspur have a three point advantage over them, despite having spent nothing on new players last summer or in January, the distraction caused by the protracted move into their new stadium, and injuries to critical players. Manchester United now appear to be trapped in a loop of perpetual transition, desperately searching for a quick fix to bring back the good old days, apparently without having realised that restoring the club to its lofty former perch is going to take a long time and may well be expensive and complex – a cycle of their own creation, which they seem unable to break in any meaningful sense.