Manchester United were right to sack Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but that does not mean he has not been a rare positive influence at the club.
After losing to Watford, the board will have felt they had little choice. All the problems with the Norwegian, which were known and allowed to fester for months, had started to overwhelm anything that was going right at the club.
United’s defence has been porous since the arrival of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones under Alex Ferguson, and to be tonked by Liverpool and Manchester City is at least understandable given their talent, but Watford are a poor Premier League side and should not be putting four past United except under freak circumstances. The problem for Solskjaer was that this was simply business as usual. From a hugely promising end to last season, one that at last gave the board an opportunity to act from a position of strength, the club now face another crisis of their own making.
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The manager had demonstrated that he had limited ability as a coach, in a tactical or development sense. There may be exceptions, but it seems as if not one single player meaningfully improved under Solskjaer. Even the promising and young Mason Greenwood, a striker, should have benefitted from his manager’s experience as one of the most clinical in the game. Instead, he has been sidetracked with perceived attitude problems, injury, and failed to kick on. There have been worse examples, too. Donny van de Beek arrived as a target for Real Madrid, and his talent has been squandered, allowed to regress and have his confidence dismantled.
Tactically, too, United have failed. The defence is disorganised, the midfield seems more like a gaping hole than an area of strength despite Van de Beek, Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes to use. Counterattacking against the better sides has stopped working as there was never anything new. Poorer, limited sides have been able to keep United at bay with a rudimentary approach that demands commitment, and Solskjaer has been signally unable to fix United’s aversion to running the hard miles.
Despite the slump that demanded he should be binned, he remains perhaps the only manager to leave the club behind in a better state than it arrived.
Under Solskjaer, some of the real deadwood was cleared. Sergio Romero, Chris Smalling, Alexis Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku (despite his improvement after leaving), Matteo Darmian, and Marcos Rojo needed to go. Phil Jones, Andreas Pereira and Jesse Lingard should be on their way after years too long at Old Trafford. There were other sales, and not all of the transfers in have been the right ones, but the squad is in better shape for his work.
There is now Cristiano Ronaldo, Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho from this summer. David de Gea has recovered his confidence, Fernandes is hugely effective despite his occasional frustrations at the club. In Greenwood and Marcus Rashford, there are two exciting forwards to be developed. This is a collection of players who need to have their spirits reinvigorated, and their abilities improved by a tactically astute and motivating manager.
The same can’t be said of the squad that was passed on to Solskjaer, or any squad of recent years - including the stale collection of veterans that Ferguson left for Moyes. The players may have underperformed and ultimately become unconvinced by him, but he has not left a club full of bitterness and frustration, tired of a manager attacking them in public or restricting them on the pitch. There is, finally, staff to focus on signing players for the long term.
For all this, of course, the next step is far from easy. United’s board failed to act in the summer when all Solskjaer’s failures were apparent. He should have been replaced when the atmosphere was constructive and yet another season did not need to be written off. The club should have a long-term strategy on the pitch, and have a figurehead to oversee that regardless of who the manager is at any time. Anybody who is employed now will be expected to plan for the future while firefighting a crisis to rescue the rest of the campaign. Solskjaer has improved United, but the board continue to hold them back.
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