There have been a lot of articles written this season about the state of Manchester United, and this is yet another one. Some people think the press is being too hard on the Old Trafford club and their hierarchy. For all of their perceived failings, the team remains in contention (however tenuously) for a Champions League place, is still in the FA Cup, and is still in the Europa League. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his beleaguered team could still end up with trophies by the summer, but you’d never know it from the atmosphere around the stadium right now.
Until this point, Solskjaer has gotten by on goodwill as the club’s manager. The Norwegian is a Manchester United legend, forever enshrined in the club’s history for his match-winning goal during their famous Champions League final victory over Bayern Munich in 1999, securing the treble for the club in the process. Those days are long ago and far away, and there’s a growing sense that the miserable 2-0 defeat at home to Burnley may have been the final straw for fans. Supporters have wanted the club’s owners, the Glazer family, to sell up and leave town for a long time, taking despised vice-chairman Ed Woodward with them. Boos and anti-owner chants were audible all the way through the match, but for the first time, anti-Solskjaer sentiments could also be heard along with them.
All of this is a far cry from Solskjaer’s first few months in the job, in which he seemed to have rediscovered the much-lauded ‘Manchester United spirit,’ culminating in an unlikely victory away at PSG in the Champions League. Fans sang ‘Ole’s at the wheel’ repeatedly as they enjoyed what they hoped was the beginning of a bright new era. Instead, it’s now more likely that the victory was the high-tide mark of Solskjaer’s reign. Results since have been bad more often than they’ve been good, the football is insipid, the tactics are naive, and the club seems more likely to lose their grip on the Europa League places than they do to overtake Chelsea in the vital fourth Champions League qualifying berth. A few weeks ago, people were asking what Solskjaer needed to do to turn things around. Instead, many of those same people are now asking who the next manager will be.
The managerial question is, on the surface at least, easy to answer. It’s no secret that Mauricio Pochettino was the first name on the club’s list when they were looking to replace Jose Mourinho, but the Argentine couldn’t be prised away from Tottenham Hotspur. With Pochettino now out of the Spurs hot seat (replaced, ironically, by Mourinho) and looking for a job, they now have the opportunity to get their man if they’re brave enough to cut ties with Solskjaer. It may not be as simple as that, though. Given the atmosphere around Old Trafford, it’s far from certain that Pochettino would want the job. Even if he did, there’s no guarantee that it would do anything to arrest the team’s ongoing decline.
As United’s decision-makers have found out to their (heavy) cost in recent years, changing managers is no guarantee of changing results. That’s true of any club and any situation. Just as placing a large wager on an online slots doesn’t improve your chances of winning, paying big money for a high-profile manager doesn’t improve the chances of victory in football. Many an online slots player has regretted putting too much money into a game and walking away with nothing, and many clubs have regretted changing managers mid-season. Online slots players do at least have the freedom to walk away when things aren’t going well, though. Manchester United’s owners and officials don’t have that luxury. They’re stuck in front of the reels, and they have to keep on spinning.
David Moyes was never likely to be a good fit for the club. The Scotsman had never won anything in his managerial career before replacing Sir Alex Ferguson and still hasn’t in the years since he was fired from his new job within less than a year. He was a poor choice made on the back of poor advice from the departing Ferguson. Louis van Gaal steadied the ship and brought an FA Cup, but was criticized for playing defensive football. Mourinho also brought trophies, but as he seemingly always does, he alienated the players and the fans and then self-destructed during his third season. With no long-term strategy, recruitment has gone out of the window. The current squad is a mash-up of multiple different ideas and no single identity.
Whether Solskjaer stays or goes is likely to be immaterial so long as the club’s hierarchy remains unchanged. Such was Ferguson’s dominance of the club that Manchester United failed to modernize when every other club was appointing sporting directors and transfer strategists. Ferguson wanted total control and had it. Without his guidance, coaches are faced with a backroom setup that belongs to the 1990s, and a money-driven figure in the shape of Woodward trying to direct football strategy and handle transfer negotiations. As we’ve seen over the past four or five transfer windows, that’s resulted in either the wrong players coming in or no players coming in at all.
Perhaps it’s still too early to write Solskjaer off. Perhaps his signings of Daniel James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka are a statement of intent about the new, youthful stamp he wants to put on the team, and the sale of players like Ashley Young is the start of a much-needed clear out of deadwood. Perhaps nobody could do better than Solskjaer with the current squad – or perhaps they could. That’s a question Manchester United has to ask themselves urgently, and when they’ve come up with an answer to it, they have to act bravely. One thing seems certain, though – whether Solskjaer stays or goes, it’s likely to be several years before this shell of a once-great football team is able to compete at the upper echelons of the sport again. By the time they’ve got their act together, they may find that Liverpool has once again overtaken them as the most successful English club of all time. For Manchester United fans, that’s almost certainly the last thing they want to happen. These are dark times indeed at Old Trafford.