Manchester United find themselves heavily invested in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and not just because of the lucrative three-year contract that was awarded to their iconic striker during those heady days in March.
This is a club sold on a rebuilding project with one of their own at the helm and for all the inevitable disappointment that has accompanied their worst start to the season in 30 years, that clarity of purpose offers something for everyone to cling to in these bleak times.
The years of wasteful spending on overpaid and under-motivated players has taken its toll on this debt-leveraged giant both financially and emotionally. The gear change in bringing in Harry Maguire and, particularly, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Dan James has been well received.
The fact that the three summer signings have made a promising start has been enough to convince Ed Woodward that the club is now on the right path – a point that he was quick to make on his quarterly investor call last month. There is still no sporting director at Old Trafford but finally there is the kernel of an idea. The makings of a philosophy.
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The problem is that Woodward and Manchester United would only be compounding the club’s many problems if they feel compelled to stick by Solskjaer indefinitely because of it. Indeed, one of the strongest arguments for instituting a club philosophy in the first place is that it withstands personnel change. It remains intact even if the manager departs.
After lurching from one regime to another in the years since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, there is genuine appetite for continuity. The stylistic shifts from David Moyes to Louis van Gaal to Jose Mourinho were clunky and the consequences of that very expensive.
But any suggestion that this alone is a reason for Solskjaer to remain in post – and after a sequence of results that has brought two wins in 13 Premier League games it is just about the sole reason offered – misunderstands the role of the manager at a modern club.
Solskjaer talks of culture creation and it is a worthy aspiration. In fact, it is essential. But those principles should be possible without him. United do not need Solskjaer to be the club’s manager to pursue the laudable policy of introducing young and hungry players to the squad. Nor does the Norwegian have the patent on the Manchester United way.
His chief responsibility is to organise the team on the pitch and maximise the resources available to him in order to achieve results – preferably with an attractive and recognisable style of play. It is a remit on which he is failing. It is a remit on which he has no real record of note to persuade anyone that he will do anything other than continue to fail in the future.
If it feels churlish to point to Solskjaer’s past experiences with Cardiff and Molde it shouldn’t. Consider the fact that for all the discontent at Newcastle and Everton right now there might not be another Premier League fan base who would prefer to see the United boss in charge of their own team. What a perverse situation for the biggest club in the land.
It should hardly be necessary to point out that the argument United have already tried experienced managers is flawed. Just because a qualified person struggles to do something is not a persuasive argument for letting a less-qualified person have a go instead. It’s folly.
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This job will take time. That is the other notion often floated in support of Solskjaer and it is a theme that he himself has warmed to – particularly after the most disappointing defeats.
“We have come together and discussed the direction we’re going,” he told Sky Sports after losing to Newcastle. “If you only walk on sunny days you will never get to your destination. It will take however long it will have to take because it’s a journey we’ve started on and the culture is getting there. I cannot give you any time [frame] but we will get there.”
Man Utd vs Liverpool
October 20, 2019, 3:00pm
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Of course, he is quite right to point out that this job will take time. Nobody can doubt that. Time to bolster his weakened squad with some shrewd manoeuvrings in the transfer market. Time to allow other crippling contracts to lapse and those players to be moved on. Time for the young talent that is already there to develop and improve.
But if United believe that this is merely a waiting game then they are surely mistaken. This is a proactive process, one that requires signs of progress on the pitch as well as in the market. It needs a coach capable of improving these players in the long term. The clock ticks by but is there really enough evidence to suggest this is happening at Manchester United?
The combative Scott McTominay has made strides but Marcus Rashford’s progress has stalled, his confidence shot. The England forward’s struggles are particularly significant given that it was the brief turnaround in his form following Mourinho’s exit that sparked much of the excitement about what Solskjaer’s long-term presence could bring.
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The uncomfortable truth for United is that the initial upturn in form, though dramatic, is now being seen for the dead cat bounce that it was.
After more than nine months in charge, a pre-season in which to prepare, the verdict is in. It was delivered by their own goalkeeper David de Gea on Sunday. Asked by Sky Sports what is going wrong, he said: “Everything. I think a lot of things need to improve. [This is] probably the worst time, most difficult time, since I have been here. I don’t know what is happening.”
It is not quite the end game for Solskjaer, but his problems are not going away. Depending on one’s outlook, Liverpool’s visit to Old Trafford next time out is either the worst fixture imaginable or the best. But with six of the eight games after that away from home – where United haven’t won in 11 attempts dating back seven months – it doesn’t get much easier.