European Football

Tragic, Yet Inevitable: The Solskjær Ending

Reflecting on the end of the Solskjær reign at Manchester United…

Well, it has finally happened.

After a five hour emergency board meeting, Manchester United have decided to part ways with manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær following United’s humiliating 4-1 defeat to Watford at Vicarage Road on Saturday. The United hero, the “Baby-Faced Assassin”, the man who inconceivably took the job following a wildly successful interim stint and kept the job even when all signs pointed to his exit, has finally seemingly ran out of time. The Norwegian’s goose is finally cooked. He ran out of extra lives. No more coins for the arcade machine. Game over. And while this is not and should not be surprising to anyone, it is truly staggering how we got to this point. The entirety of the “Solskjær Saga”, dating all the way back to that night in Paris in 2019 to now, shows how unbelievably inept this football club has become and the scale of melodramatic meltdown that they are willing to allow despite the money spent, the ambitions of the fans, and the stature of this club.

We should have never gotten to this point. And the fact we have reflects directly upon the leadership of Ed Woodward and the Glazer Family.

Now, I am not a Manchester United fan. I feel that, because of that, I am able to approach this from a more level-headed plane, as I do not have the emotional attachment to Solskjær that frankly largely carried him in that position. And I feel that I am able to admit something that quite a lot of United fans do not, or at least did not, want to face: that Ole has never shown anything to justify him keeping that job. He has never been consistently good enough for Manchester United, and the fact that this probably would have ended a while ago had it not been for the club’s acquisition of Bruno Fernandes in January 2020 shows that this man really leaned on the individual talent of the players he had to keep him in that role. It was the likes of Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, Paul Pogba, and Edinson Cavani that carried United in some crucial moments but could not do so by themselves in others.

I do not want to say that he was consistently not good enough. He showed flashes, times in which we all thought he was finally figuring it out, but those were few and far between. Every time it seemed United turned a corner under Ole, they simply just ran into another wall. United did improve under his tenure, but many also forget that the “notoriously stingy Glazers” spent more on transfers during Ole’s tenure than almost every football club on the planet. It was the acquisition of Fernandes, of Harry Maguire, of Aaron Wan-Bissaka, of Raphaël Varane, and others, that elevated the level of this team significantly to the point where they could skate by in many games on talent alone and, crucially, to the point where they had to start delivering major results and silverware.

But Ole’s tactics and game management were not just bad this season, they have been bad for quite a while. Failures in crucial Champions League games, in important league games that could have gotten United into a title race, in a Europa League semifinal and final, and a FA Cup semifinal shows what he has lacked this whole time: the ability to truly set a team up to succeed and counteract the system of his opposition. Man United long ago reached the ceiling of where Solskjær could take them, but instead of making the logical move to a new man (especially when many prominent names were available), they continued to stick with the fledgling ship captain, hoping he would eventually learn how to sail before they hit an iceberg.

And all of that being said, Ole is still very much a victim in this. The real people responsible for them getting to this point are the people above the manager, the people who allowed the situation to devolve to this point and threaten Ole’s reputation at the club. While I stand by everything I said above about Ole not being good enough for this role, it is impossible to stand against the idea that he was the right man for the interim role following Jose Mourinho’s dismissal. Things had so degraded to the point of outright toxicity during the final months of the Portuguese’s tenure at United that the club desperately needed a figurative “ray of sunlight” to come in. The idea of bringing in someone who could restore the faith of the supporters, someone who could get on well with the players, someone who could just generally inject some positivity into the dying veins around Old Trafford was something that is very logical, and Solskjær was probably the best choice to do that.

Of all of Ole’s managerial abilities or shortcomings, the one thing he has shown to be quite good at (at least prior to this season) is man management and individual relationships. After a few years of outward, destructive toxicity under Mourinho, Solskjær was a bright figure who could come into the changing room and get the players believing in themselves again while also still being able to demand the standards to which United should be held. He restored Luke Shaw, got Marcus Rashford to believe in his ability and turn into a star, and ushered in a future superstar in Mason Greenwood. He was the most ideal candidate, and the long unbeaten run that United went on during his interim tenure in 2019 is illustrative of the mental and emotional effect his arrival had on the club.

And that is where the first mistake happened. Ole’s interim tenure was strong, but he should have never been named permanent manager during that season. There was literally zero reason to offer him the job, regardless of the unbeaten run or the win against PSG or anything else. All they had to do was wait until the end of the season and evaluate his job position once they had a significant period of time to review. Had they taken that approach and waited, then the end of season dip that United went through, which included multiple significant losses to Everton, Arsenal, Man City, and, ironically, Cardiff, would have been dismissed as dealing with the circumstances rather than being the first significant question marks around Ole’s permanent tenure. While expectations did get quite carried away during his interim tenure, keeping Ole as the interim is the club’s best effort in reducing some of that pressure from the inside. As an interim, he is simply just trying to right the ship that he inherited. And that leads us to the other major mistakes…

There were so many points at which this could have been severed for the benefit of all parties. Ole did not have to be under the pressure that he has been for the last two and a half years, he did not have to go through all of this very likely mental anguish or run the risk of tarnishing his incredible legacy at the club. The situation did not have to degrade to this degree. They could have decided to not make him permanent manager, allowing him to ride off into the sunset as the man who set United back on track to be contenders. They could have even had the discussion after the loss to Sevilla in the Europa League semifinal, deciding to part ways at that pivotal crossroads in the United project and find the man who would carry this United up the final steps to success. Ole would have been remembered as the man who saved the post-Ferguson Man United from falling apart. Any success that United had in the years to come would be thanks to the groundwork that Ole had laid. The investment this past summer would have come under the right manager and likely built a team that could have been serious contenders.

Even last season, when Man United took advantage of a down year for most of the “Big Six” to finish second, they could have simply decided the time for change was at the end of that season. Despite the domestic success, United failed miserably in their return to the Champions League and had been on the losing end of what really might have been one of the biggest upsets in a European final in football history, falling to Villarreal on penalties in the Europa League Final. The cracks were seriously beginning to form. The Villarreal game (and also the Sevilla game) were the biggest red flags for me, and those should have been the moments where United realized that Ole would not be the man to carry them forward. But not only did they not decide to part ways, they gave him a new contract! In the same summer where Antonio Conte and Zinedine Zidane were unemployed, following the mid-season where Mauricio Pochettino was snapped off of the job market to manage PSG, United took the unbelievably risky gamble to stick with what they had. They did not need anyone else to be the guy, Ole would be the one to carry United to silverware. And that had not been the case before this season, and it certainly never looked like it will be the case this season.

Ole is a stubborn man, as he frankly should be given how decorated of a playing career he has had basically being a super sub, so he is not going to be the one to say that he is in over his head despite him blatantly being in over his head. United allowed themselves to continue being dug deeper into this current hole until they find themselves here, coming off the back of three humiliating league losses, at the point where they have absolutely no choice but to sever this relationship, at the point where a team that was expected to contend for a league title has never been further away from Liverpool and Manchester City in terms of quality. They waited entirely too long to make this decision, and now they are paying the consequences.

And just to add another bad decision on top of this, they decided to wait and sit on their hands during the whole of the two week international break period, following two games against City and Liverpool that certainly should have been the final straw for Ole, only to make the decision to sack him now and needing to rely on the interim management of Michael Carrick for their incredibly important Champions League match against Villarreal on Tuesday (they ended up winning 2-0) and equally important league match against Chelsea on Sunday. Instead of having a whole international break to prepare, they only have a matter of days.

This is the epitome of the ineptitude. Man United had been held together by the leadership of Sir Alex Ferguson for decades, even during the Glazers ownership, but ever since the Scotsman’s retirement, the Glazers and Executive Vice-Chairman Ed Woodward have ran United as a money-making scheme, more of a good ol’ boys club rather than an actual footballing institution. The club’s stature and supporter base demand them to be contending for trophies, but that is not what the club hierarchy cares about. They simply want to make money, and they do so by only ensuring United’s Champions League presence every season. Played off the park by Sevilla in the Europa League? Doesn’t matter, top four finish means money. Lose in a European final to a club from a town whose entire population could fit inside Old Trafford with around 20,000 seats left over? Doesn’t matter, finished second. A healthy distance behind City, but second nonetheless. Old Trafford falling apart? Doesn’t matter, Champions League money.

And now we are here. United have no manager, and they waited until quite literally the last minute to make a decision that should have been responsibly made ages ago. There is apparently not a high chance of them getting their ideal candidate until the end of the season. So…Ernesto Valverde as interim manager? Lucien Favre? Laurent Blanc? Steve Bruce? Keep Carrick? No idea, but this is certainly appearing to be a wasted season for Man United. Onto the Champions League knockout stages, but you would not fancy them to get far in the competition. Only 12 points off the top of the league, but would you really think they have a chance at the title? All of that spending, the fanfare of bringing back Ronaldo, and it does not seem United will be doing much of anything this year. This was entirely avoidable, but they could not help themselves.

Who will be the next manager? Zidane? Ten Hag? Pochettino? I do not know. We will write or pod about it when it happens, but for now, uncertainty circles around Man United.

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