For the better part of the last seven years, Manchester United have been a club on a steady path to mediocrity. Since the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson stood down in 2013, the Red Devils have wandered in the general direction of nowhere and continue to do so with hardly any meaningful results.
Managers have come and gone, hundreds of millions of euros splashed, the club’s marketability enhanced with the signing of several commercial partnerships but results have been hard to come by. If the club has made strides off the pitch, it has regressed alarmingly on it.
Enough has been documented on the short managerial tenures of David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho. Their imprint on the club is largely forgettable even if Van Gaal won the FA Cup and Mourinho landed the Carabao and Europa trophies. A club of Manchester United’s stature should be judged on the Premier League and Uefa Champions League, the two competitions where Fergie’s United competed in well.
In mid 2018, the club’s CEO made the gamble on entrusting club legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with the task of rebuilding a club whose spine had been broken by Mourinho. It was an interim appointment. It was the mother of gambles seeing how Solskjaer’s only excursion in the Premier League’s managerial dugout had steered Cardiff to relegation.
Solskjaer did exceptionally well. He made Pogba function. He brought a smile on the faces of all players. United started playing with a drive and style last witnessed in 2013. David De Gea looked like the old De Gea, the defence became impregnable and the Reds looked like a club turning back the clock. PSG were knocked out in Europe and although United fell to the genius of Messi and Barcelona, the common consensus was that Ole had made it impossible for the owners not to appoint him on permanent basis.
The Norwegian had fully utilised the fortune enjoyed by most interim appointments. Ole did tremendously well under no pressure; he had arrived mid-season and was never going to be accused of mismanaging a side whose nadir was a 3-1 defeat to arch-rivals Liverpool before he took the charge. His warmth and affection reunited a hitherto dispirited side and everything fell in place in an instant.
Ole knew the ethos of the club and was a figure everyone would respect inside and outside the club. The aptly named baby-faced assassin was a popular figure in his playing days, a ruthless striker who was so effective in the so few minutes he was played off the bench, and his 1999 Uefa Champions League final stoppage time winner over Bayern Munich etched his name high up in the annals of the club’s history.
And then came his confirmation. With it came the end of the honeymoon. It is as though the wheels came off when he was appointed on permanent basis. The club suffered a poor run of form and were beaten on the final day of the Premier League season at Old Trafford by Cardiff. Another season of anguish had ended quietly but Ole fully enjoyed the benefit of doubt, not least because he taken over midway through a season of a team not built by him.
Today Man United are hovering above the relegation zone after suffering a listless start to the season under Ole. Last season the club suffered defeats to Bournemouth, Newcastle, West Ham and staggered their way to Champions League football after failing to beat Southampton and West Ham at Old Trafford. In the Europa League, they were knocked out by Sevilla in the semi-finals.
There can be a so many reasons to feel sorry for Ole; the club barely had a pre-season because of the extended run in the Europa League last season, Ed Woodward and the owners haven’t tied up the players he has sought all summer, the Crystal Palace loss you could argue was as a result of a ludicrous VAR penalty, Aaron Wan-Bisakka and Paul Pogba contracted the Coronavirus while Mason Greenwood self-destructed while on international duty among so many others.
You can’t blame Ole for any of the aforementioned issues. They were well beyond his control. But this is not his first full season in charge, it is his second. And there is very limited evidence to suggest Ole is the man to return United to the elite of English and European football. It was Ole who signed Harry Maguire last season and the skipper has been shambles.
The world’s most expensive defender was supposed to be United’s answer to Virgil Van Dijk but he has come woeful short as a leader, organiser, captain and game reader. Many a time Victor Lindelof has been the easy target for observers but it is his English partner at the heart of central defence who has mostly been culpable. In Saturday’s 1-6 mauling to Tottenham, Maguire was at fault for both goals when Spurs were leading 2-1 before Anthony Martial was dismissed.
Maguire has started all three Premier League matches this season and United have let in 11 goals, almost an average of four every game. He was signed by Ole and his ineptitude reflects badly on Ole’s scouting. The jury remains out on both Wan-Bisakka and Daniel James, two players who were Ole’s first acquisitions last summer but whose form has blown hot and cold.
Ole to his credit brought in Bruno Fernandes and the Portuguese has been nothing short of sensational at Old Trafford. He was scored goals, created many others and given the team a new dimension in the final third of the pitch. Without Bruno, United wouldn’t have qualified for the Uefa Champions League last season and Ole can’t be denied his credit.
But nothing is working elsewhere. The Pogba puzzle, one which failed Mourinho, is one Ole has failed to solve. Which is Pogba’s best position? With Pogba and Bruno on the field, United have been exposed in defensive midfield and for a team that has regularly and consistently struggled to control matches, teams have always found a way to punish this porosity.
Does Ole have the balls to make big decisions? Great managers make massive decisions for the greater good of the unit. Ole looks ‘Mr Nice Guy’ who lacks the ruthless streak to ring critical changes.
United have now been outplayed by Crystal Palace, Brighton Hove & Albion and Tottenham and unless the club embark on a quick run, confidence in the club legend is ebbing fast.
Perhaps Ole is in the job because United are trying not to be a hiring-and-firing club having sacked three managers in the seven years since Fergie stood down.
But football is a results-oriented business and increasingly, the club is finding out that sentiments must end somewhere.
Mauricio Pochettino is a better option for the club but that discussion is for another day.