It is the speed and steepness of the descent that has taken Manchester United by surprise.
When the Portuguese superstar marked his second United debut with two goals in a 4-1 win over Newcastle, everything seemed fine. When hundreds of fans waited more than half an hour to greet the Portuguese superstar as he conducted interviews after that match, it seemed inconceivable that 10 weeks later Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would be fired.
But, after surviving the 5-0 home loss to Liverpool On October 24 and Manchester City’s 2-0 ‘humiliation’ on November 6, Solskjaer was catapulted from the coach’s chair after Saturday’s game. the 4-1 defeat at Watford.
The statistics are stark. Four wins in 13 games in all competitions since that Newcastle win. Seven points from eight Premier League games, with United keeping a clean sheet. Nineteen goals conceded in seven games. Outside the Carabao Cup.
It would have been even worse had it not been for a penalty save by David de Gea in injury time that secured a 2-1 Premier League win over West Ham in September, and three critical goals from Ronaldo in the Champions League. League, late winners at home against Villarreal. and Atalanta, and a spectacular point saving against Gian Piero Gasperini’s team in Italy.
Solskjaer: the pros
For some, the departure from Solskjaer has been a long time in coming. They were never convinced that the Norwegian was up to the job in the first place and have been waiting for him to fail since his appointment was made permanent in March 2019.
That judgment is severe.
Solskjaer restored pride to a club that had given itself up during the last days of the José Mourinho era. Without a doubt, he acted and made decisions for the benefit of Manchester United, a club engraved on his heart.
He landed a second place in the Premier League last season, which is as high as United have achieved since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013. After 19 games, he was at the top, a position he had not enjoyed in a so late in the season since Ferguson left.
Had they beaten Villarreal in the Europa League final as expected, Solskjaer would have given himself an element of protection against the problems that have plagued him. But De Gea missed a rare penalty shootout in Gdansk and, as some felt at the time, the effect of those good margins against the Norwegian is now being felt.
Solskjaer: The cons
That is not to say that Solskjaer is not responsible for United’s collapse.
It has long been obvious which players you trust and which you don’t. Donny van de Beek obviously falls into the latter category.
It’s not entirely clear what role Solskjaer played in Van de Beek’s £ 35 million arrival from Ajax in September 2020, but he never gave the impression that he thought the Dutchman could be a significant presence at Old Trafford.
More than one source has told BBC Sport that Solskjaer felt there was nervousness over Van de Beek, leading to uncertainty about whether he could prosper at United.
That view is a bit strange given that almost every game last season was played in an empty stadium. The fact that Van de Beek came in and scored as United struggled to find a way back to Watford’s game further undermined Solskjaer’s vision.
Van de Beek was one of the United players who have moved to the periphery this season.
Dean Henderson’s hopes of competing for the goalkeeping job have been dashed, although, it is true, David de Gea has been one of United’s best players.
However, with De Gea and Henderson in first-team roles, Tom Heaton has been reduced to the role of third-choice, which doesn’t seem like the best use of the 35-year-old, who was in the England squad before him. . he was injured two years ago.
Jesse Lingard posted a photo of himself on social media wearing a West Ham kit on Friday. This came after BBC Sport and other media outlets learned of the collapse of contract talks with United.
Lingard’s exceptional loan period at West Ham in the second half of last season propelled him back to England’s reckoning. He chose not to return to the London stadium permanently in the summer, in part because he understood that Solskjaer would offer more opportunities, which have not come.
On November 12, Harry Maguire covered his ears with his fingers, a gesture that was interpreted as an offense to his critics, after scoring in England’s 5-0 victory over Albania. Eight days later, the United captain was sent off playing for his club in the loss at Watford.
Those two games encapsulated the defender’s recent form. Good for England, terrible for United.
That could be seen during the 4-2 loss at their former club Leicester in October, when their mistake offered the locals a way back to a game they were losing. It was also seen during the Manchester derby in early November, when he and Luke Shaw wavered and allowed City’s Bernardo Silva to take control and score.
Maguire and Shaw were passive, waiting for the ball to go out of play. That attitude contrasts sharply with that of Bernardo, who was proactive in trying to make something happen. He hinted at a shyness that runs through the entire United team.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s concentration has never been excellent. But after being caught in no-man’s-land against Liverpool in October and mercilessly exposed by television pundits, he did much the same against City in preparation for his first goal.
Bruno Fernandes’s failure to seize a clear opportunity to equalize at Watford came after a performance against City that was as poor as the one he has produced since joining United, giving away cheap possession time and time again.
It has never been entirely clear why United spent £ 47 million on Brazilian midfielder Fred. And the only thing that can be said about the injured Paul Pogba is that no one is arguing that things would have been better if the Frenchman, sent off after entering as a substitute against Liverpool, had been available.
Was Solskjaer willing to challenge the owners?
One of the accusations regularly leveled at Solskjaer is that he does not have a strong football style to distinguish him, meaning he pales in comparison to management heavyweights like Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel.
This vision ignores the fact that he has beaten teams led by all three, at the same time he surpassed Julian Nagelsmann, Marcelo Bielsa and Mauricio Pochettino.
Initially, Solskjaer felt that his team lacked the aptitude to push in the way he wanted. He got rid of Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sánchez with the goal of having a younger attacking force that could run and force opposing defenses to make mistakes.
His midfield still looked weak, but there was a consistent pattern to Solskjaer’s recruiting. He signed Jadon Sancho early in the closed season and convinced Edinson Cavani to stay at Old Trafford for another year when it seemed the Uruguayan was ready to move on.
The arrival of Ronaldo broke the template.
At a stroke, the number nine role, which Cavani and Mason Greenwood were expected to share, was awarded to the 36-year-old. As a result, Cavani has barely played and Greenwood has played a large role, reducing Sancho’s chances.
Ronaldo’s abilities are beyond question and his goals have saved United more than once this season. But pushing defenders out of possession wasn’t his game 10 years ago and nothing has changed.
Did Solskjaer really value Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford as much as the executives who knew the business impact the Portuguese superstar would have?
And if not, were you willing to say so?
Even when Solskjaer was still at work and the results were going well, some sources, steeped in United’s history, wondered if he was prepared to go to war internally for what he believed was right, if he was prepared to challenge the Glazer family. and Executive Vice President Ed Woodward.
Deep down, the theory goes, Solskjaer always felt he was lucky to land such a great job given his relatively low-profile managerial resume, and his nature meant he would accept imperfect situations rather than criticize them.
That narrative may explain why Solskjaer survived those terrible defeats to Liverpool and Manchester City. It may also explain why United allowed Antonio Conte to join Tottenham instead of making a move for the demanding Italian.
Now, however, they are on the hunt for the number five manager after Ferguson.
And after what has happened before, there can be no real confidence that they will get it right this time.