As the Stone Roses once sang, ‘seems like there’s a hole in my dreams’ and Manchester United’s start to this season has put the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer fairytale on the brink. For every glimmer of hope in a good performance, a plunge into darkness has come quickly round the corner.
The stage was set so early when Ole took over on a caretaker basis in December 2018, following the departure of Jose Mourinho. Points were quickly amassed in the league with a dream night in Paris, when United reached the Champions League quarter finals, all but securing the Manager’s job on a permanent basis.
Mourinho’s perceived failure was the perfect backdrop for Ole to ‘take the wheel’ as a playing legend turned firefighter. Jose had ground it out, dragging his rigid team to a level not surpassed since and making sure everyone knew about it. Suddenly fans and pundits alike felt a wave of nostalgia, the shackles were off and United in the image of Sir Alex was back.
Eighteen months later, the resurrection has fizzled out.
When the pressure has mounted on the field, Solskjaer’s team hasn’t stood up to the task. From a worrying string of semi-final defeats at the end of last season, alarming patterns have continued to appear in United’s results. The horror show against Tottenham and defeat in Istanbul laid bare their frailties. Be it a faltering central defensive pairing or a change in formation to try and accommodate a plethora of midfield players, there is no consistency in what team is going to show on a given day. The insipid showing against Arsenal had all the hallmarks of a group of players given a confused message from a Manager trying to find his way. The curious case of Donny van de Beek posing the question of ‘what is the plan here?’
The Norwegian’s suitability to bring long term success to Old Trafford is part of a wider, unsettled landscape around the running of the club. The Glazer’s are arguably the least popular owners in English football with a right-hand man in Ed Woodward who’s erratic transfer dealings have seen him become a walking meme. Solskjaer has gradually become an extension of this much-maligned hierarchy. Where predecessor Mourinho would publicly bite at a lack of financial backing, Ole appears complicit as a toothless and confused transfer strategy plays out for all to see.
A club that would once battle Real Madrid and Barcelona for prized acquisitions is now left scratching around for free agents or paying over the odds for players they seemingly don’t need and that other clubs just don’t want. Bruno Fernandes’ success being the rare exemption in a long list of knee-jerk dealings. Any Manager since Fergie, from Moyes to Van Gaal, has been left to try and fit square pegs in round holes.
Where his appointment was a tool to lift spirits and reignite an old flame, the current Manager is now being used as the last line of defence to protect an empire commercially rich but with little recent success to show on the field – something that was once considered intolerable for a club of the stature of Manchester United, now all but accepted in a resigned fashion. No club has a divine right to win major trophies but the fact is, United aren’t even giving themselves a chance.
With names like Pochettino available and ready to get back to work the external pressure for change is growing. But it’s one thing bringing in a name of that ilk and another to implement the necessary basis for them to flourish. If you were to ask a United fan whether they trusted Ed Woodward and the ownership to do that, it would be an emphatic ‘no’.
Sadly though, it is very rare for those at the Boardroom level succumb to a lack of results on the field, and what was once a case of ‘if’ Solskjaer would be replaced, has now become a case of ‘when’.