Amid the gloom of the Manchester United dressing room, there was one obvious question. How, in the space of just a week, could they go from the reaffirming 5-0 win over Leipzig to this – two defeats that deflate everything again?
The truth is that this has just been the reality of the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer era. The last few games have merely seen his two years in charge condensed into one month, as if summing it all up. Great results have somehow gone alongside miserable ones, good streaks immediately following bad ones, no sense of any sort of evolution.
The biggest question of all is what it would take to actually change this. Much has been said about Solskjaer’s ability to develop as a manager, but what about a change in the club’s position? What would it take to replace him?
It is not the move executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward wants to make.
He likes Solskjaer, and has placed a lot of trust in him. Woodward is also conscious of Solskjaer’s popularity among the supporters.
That alone is why an empty Old Trafford may be so influential, and not just because of the effect on finances. Woodward won’t hear the same criticism of his own running of the club.
More broadly, it has been United policy under the Glazers to not make any managerial change until Champions League qualification is mathematically impossible. That is the corporate way this regime has viewed things.
It is why David Moyes did not get sacked until April 2014, and Louis van Gaal lasted until the end of the 2015-16 season.
Jose Mourinho was only dispensed with mid-season because the atmosphere had become “toxic”.
It was unmistakable. Everyone could sense it.
This is why so many in the game insist United need proper football intelligence to make these decisions, like a sporting director.
They would have the insight to make a call on all of this, to know whether it’s actually developing, to a much more informed degree than the flat lines of the numbers. They’d see what other officials don’t. The danger in looking at it through a purely business perspective – like the Champions League places – is that you make less sophisticated decisions that actually harm business in the long run.
With Solskjaer right now, it’s difficult not to think United are setting up for an endless purgatory, that is maybe the logical end point of the entire Glazer approach. He will get great individual wins but never do well enough to make real progress, and have some awful defeats but never do bad enough to actually get sacked, perpetually just making top four because of the financial size of the club. It will keep that money coming in, but not actually do much with it.
As the Mourinho spell proved, mind, events can take a life of their own.
The United hierarchy had been conscious of how complicated this run was after the Tottenham Hotspur shambles. They had been steeling themselves.
The frustration is that Solskjaer had seemed to so successfully navigate it with that triptych of wins, only to run aground in the clearest conditions.
There is an irony to the fact Basaksehir have caused Solskjaer greater problems out of this period than PSG and Leipzig, but also an obvious logic.
This has been the way of his time. It has brought all the problems of that time to the fore again, not least involving that defence and Paul Pogba. It’s hard to know what Solskjaer can or should do.
As regards what Woodward will do, he will still give Solskjaer time. Many sources say the wins over PSG and Leipzig alone have certainly bought him the chance to try and complete the group stage at the very least, even if the great frustration of the Basaksehir defeat was that it so squandered the massive advantage United had. The Champions League trophy itself is also seen as an achievable aim.
The Everton game is still described as “massive”. Mauricio Pochettino and Max Allegri are known to be hugely interested in the United job, and asked about it again after the defeat to Tottenham Hotspur. The dysfunction doesn’t put them off. Both feel they could do wonders with United. They will surely be watching intently over the next week.
It would just entirely follow the logic of the Solskjaer era if they went and beat Everton convincingly, to start the cycle all over again.
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