Manchester United: A grand institution steeped in glory and tradition. The club enjoyed 26 years of domestic dominance under their greatest manager ever, Sir Alex Ferguson, the Jean-Luc Picard of football managers. Like SAF, Picard is head and shoulders above rest of his peers; the most complete captain of the USS Enterprise. Not only is he more adored than Captain Kirk, but he also is more willing to work with his entire crew and not just the same two men every mission, just like Sir Alex Ferguson.
But today Manchester United is not even a reflection of the title-winning teams Fergie put together. Seven years without a league title have not eased the misery of the Old Trafford faithful, despite the odd piece of other miscellaneous silverware. Like a click from Thanos, Manchester Utd, once the great Avengers assembled by Sir Alex himself, now look like a team full of Hawk-Eyes, sidekicks, and no-name extras brought in to fill screen space in the fight scenes.
Since 2013, when Sir Alex Ferguson handed off the mantle, the club has seen four managers: David Moyes, Louis Van Gal, the self-proclaimed Special One Jose Mourinho, and now Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
This season Manchester Utd, who now face a grueling seven games in 21 days, have endured a horrendous start, with two defeats in their first three Premier League games leaving them fighting for their lives just above the drop zone.... the drop zone???
So they clearly will not get relegated, but as they look up the table, their fiercest rivals sit comfortably looking down at them and sniggering! Even Leeds are having a laugh, forget about Liverpool and City! It is like seeing three of your ex-girlfriends with guys that resemble Greek Gods who drive Ferraris, Lambos, and Rolls Royces while you look like Ricky Gervais (before he lost weight) just coming out of Covid lockdown in a Nissan Cherry.
In 2007, Solskjær announced his retirement as a player after a serious knee injury. The doors to Old Trafford remained open for him as he took on a coaching role. In 2008, the “baby faced assassin” became the club’s reserve-team manager, teaching the future of the club how to be as successful as he was, and what it means to wear the shirt.
In 2011, Solskjaer felt like he was ready to become a first team coach, so he returned to his native country (Norway) to manage his former club Molde, which he led to their two first-ever Tippeligaen titles in his first two seasons there. He secured a third title in as many seasons. Like Thor relocating to Norway from Asgard after failing to deal with Thanos’ plan, Thor put on weight and drank a lot! But he was still Thor, right? The question was, would his Hammer have the thunder to smash its way up the Premier League Table? Along came Cardiff…
Ole at Cardiff
It is pretty easy to sum up: Ole’s tenure at Cardiff is like listening to Destiny’s Child without Beyoncé and Kelly Rowland… and the other one!
Ole inherited a team in trouble, 17th in the Premier League. He took them down to 20th (and out), and then left them in 17th in the Championship after only nine months at the club and despite signing 17 players. Ole’s time at Cardiff can be described as a love child between a train wreck and a dumpster fire. Ole was outperformed by both his predecessor and his successor. It was at this moment, it felt like when Captain America and Jarvis man handle Thor’s mighty Hammer; now it just feels like everyone could handle Thor’s hammer except the Norwegian.
Caretaker Ole at Utd
The last caretaker manager at the Theatre of Dreams was club legend and most decorated player, Ryan Giggs. If only Giggs had spent as much time delivering better team talks and paying attention to his job as he did with the media and meticulously hiding his affair with his brother’s wife. I am confident he could have stayed on longer; maybe not as long as the 8-year affair, but he could have lasted longer than four games definitely.
An ITV documentary revealed the contents of Giggs’ pre-match team talk before his legendary last game in charge: awkward monotony and full of cliché, you could easily add the music theme tune of You Been Framed to it, and it would not seem out of place. If anything, this team talk is the one Giggs should have got a gag order for.
After Jose Mourinho was sacked in December 2018 following a heavy defeat to arch rivals Liverpool, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer returned to Carrington as caretaker manager while United’s head office looked to secure a more headline blockbuster name to occupy the dugout at Old Trafford. The manner of the defeat cost the Portuguese his job after his side failed to register a single shot on target. The Old Trafford faithful were looking for a new way or more fitting to say, the old way! The Manchester United way. And who better than somebody who has breathed, bled and lived the Manchester United way that delivered success and silverware.
The Norwegian took the helm in December and had a fixture pile up as soon as he took the hot seat. United started the new year in scintillating form. They were unbeaten in the league in 11, winning nine and drawing two with six clean sheets along the way. More importantly, they were playing some free flowing football, and the Norwegian was getting the best out of Paul Pogba, arguably the catalyst for throwing Jose Mourinho under his own bus that he parked so often against the big teams. Not many had predicted just how well Solskjaer would do! Was it his laid back style of player management or knowing the ‘UTD way’ that made everything tick in his first season as head coach a success? Whatever it was, he was making top-flight management look like a stroll in the park and has tumbled a few records along the way.
· Most wins from first games as Manchester United manager
The first record Solskjaer set was in January, where he became the first Manchester United manager to win his first six matches in charge, surpassing the five-game win record set by Sir Matt Busby.
· Equals opening win record for specific Premier League club
· Most points won in opening ten matches
· Beats Sir Alex for away wins
The victory meant Ole’s side have won away at Tottenham, Arsenal, and Chelsea for the first time since the Ron Atkinson era.
It was on that unforgettable night in Paris. The Champions League second leg against the mighty Paris Saint Germain, Ole did the impossible. With a depleted side that was hampered by injuries and trailing by two goals, the mighty Red Devils went to the Parc des Princes and became Kings. They beat the world class superstars of Paris to reach the last eight of the Champions League.
The good times were back at Old Trafford! Ole said in his post-match interview that although they had a mountain to climb, “Mountains are there to be climbed.” His belief truly paid off, and he had won the hearts of millions of United fans in Manchester and worldwide. Especially former United defender Rio Ferdinand, pundit for BT sports that night; he used the opportunity to issue a rallying cry to the club’s hierarchy, urging them to take action. Ferdinand famously opined, “Let him sign it; let him write whatever numbers he wants to put on there given what he’s done now since he’s come in.” Also: “Let him sign the contract and go. Ole’s at the wheel. He’s doing it, he’s doing his thing. Man Utd are back!”
The slothful, painful-to-watch players in red of last year have become vibrant, creative, and positive once again. The probation period is over. The L-plates have been ripped off, Rio Ferdinand had got his way. On 28 March 2019, having won 14 of his 19 matches in charge, Solskjær signed a three-year contract to take over as Manchester United manager permanently.
In both the 2018–19 and 2019–20 seasons, Ole’s Manchester United team finished on 66 points. In his first season, this resulted in a sixth-place finish. However, in the 2019–20 season, this was enough to finish third, only the second time Manchester United had finished in the top 3 since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. It is a shame that the so-called “top 4 trophy”, once used as a stick to beat Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal faithful for aiming low, is now the aim for one of the biggest clubs in world Football.
Expectations were high at Old Trafford ahead of the current campaign. Fans’ start of the season 2020-21 speculations:
· Bruno Fernandes breaks records this season
· Van De Beek is the missing link (watch Pogba now)
· Lindelof catches thieves in his spare time
· Marcus Rashford (soon to be prime minister)
· Greenwood is the chosen son (no one knows what footed he is)
· Ole, not Justin Timberlake is bringing sexy back
But Solskjaer’s side suffered an opening-day defeat to Crystal Palace before stumbling past Brighton and then conceding six (6!) goals in an embarrassing defeat to Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham. Leaving Ole’s men in a place in the table that one has to double click and scroll down to see their current position (15th).
Two defeats from United’s opening three Premier League games as well as a poor performance against Spurs, and then a somewhat anxious transfer window... Seems like all the ingredients needed for a sack-me spell.
They say 70 percent of the world is covered by United targets and the rest by Wenger’s almost-signed players. With underwhelming signings like Edinson Cavani and missing out on golden-ticket Jaden Sancho of Dortmund, suddenly Ole started to see the glances turn inward, and this period seems set to be one that will determine if he sinks or swims with the sharks.
He was brought on as the anti-Jose, but his tactics seem to mirror Jose’s ‘parking the bus’. The only difference is Ole is at the wheel. His tactics in a sentence: All behind the ball, counterattack or get a penalty during or after the game.
Using one-dimensional tactics (counterattack) last season, United struggled against opponents who defended very deep and in numbers, seeming impotent but becoming active like they’ve from Viagra only when teams play with a high line suiting Ole’s counterattack transitions. Against the “big 6” teams, he sets up in a 5-3-2 and normally 4-2-3-1, this is not the formation or mind-set fans were used to. Granted, Fergie used to occasionally set up more defensively minded against possession teams, he had Ji Sung Park to run around with his 3 lungs putting in important defense duties (and get the occasional goal too).
The problem was not just one of tactics but lack of creative quality too. United needed a creative spark like even Neo from the Matrix needed the key-maker to access doors he couldn’t, but they were not getting that with current players like Scott McTominay, Jesse Lingard and Fred who probably struggled to open their own front doors. Pogba was meant to be that creative genius, but he was in the blue-pill zone of deep midfield where he couldn’t use his talent. Not only did this make him ineffective, but he even became a liability; no player lost possession more than Pogba, thus giving the opposition an easy route to goal. Yes, I know I am starting to sound like Graeme Souness; don’t worry I wont blame Pogba for climate change too.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka is no doubt a great defender, and his stats reflect this, but having won the most tackles in the Premiership is worrying for United. This reveals the pressure caused by the three mids losing the ball and AWB being high up the pitch and needing to race back to make last-ditch tackles. It raises the question: Why is someone who is so ineffective so high up and he cannot cross a ball? It is like a vegan at all meat buffets.
Many have ordered Ring Doorbells to protect their loved ones and their homes, but it seems, United have spent over 216 million in the back (keeper and back-4) only to leave the side door ajar.
Speaking of opening doors, United were screaming out for someone who could do just that. Knock Knock! Who’s there? Bruno Fernandes! Ole brought in the Portuguese wizard from Sporting in the January window for a snippet of 47M pounds. The club was screaming for a creative player who could break down stubborn defenses and get the bums off seats again, and he did just that. Fernandes pretty much single handedly took the Red Devils back to the Champions League by helping the club finish third, just behind their most bitter rivals Liverpool and City. But is this work in progress or just papering over the cracks?
It is Ole’s tactical acumen one must question. There is talent at the club with the likes of De Gea, AWB, McGuire, Pogba, Fernandes, Van de Beek, Fred, Martial, Rashford and Greenwood. Solskjaer has not been in self isolation, nor has his head been buried in the sand all these years. He must have been aware of football’s tactical development, and yet United’s defeats, notably the one at Crystal Palace, suggest counter-attacking football is his only course of action. It is like knowing that Mark Zuckerberg will be wearing his bland outfits may seem dull, but Zuckerberg has a legitimate reason for donning the same T-shirt every day (He claims that dressing in the same way allows him to focus his energy on more important decisions at work). I wish I knew what Ole’s reasons are for doing the same tactics every game.
And it doesn’t reflect well on United’s current crop of players or Ole that two of Uniteds recent signings are captains so soon after joining. I am sure Roy Keane would have something to say.
The structural problems at United have plagued every manager since Sir Alex Ferguson, and Ed Woodward has a role to play in this too. Failing to secure signings, poor appointments of managers, and dumbfounding wages / transfer fees for players who haven’t performed have become a norm at Old Trafford, as have a lack of foresight, planning, and continuity in recruitment decisions.
Ed Woodward is brilliant at what he does, but what he does is get commercial deals with large companies to boost revenues; I am sure even United’s toilet paper is sponsored, which is great for the Glazers, but the fans and the club are suffering. Ed Woodward is seen as the Loki figure of the Marvel Universe: always up to no good, and when he does something good just know that there’s another shoe yet to drop.
With the wielding of the axe being the norm and ever-increasing in modern football, ideological consistency within a club is needed to acquire players who can adapt to a new coaches philosophy without forcing the club into further spending. The constant U-turns would inevitably end up with them driving around in circles.
Ole is Part of the problem. Not a victim of it.
As the great United faithful would say “next year is our year”, or should I say when Sancho comes.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer: Should he stay or should he go?
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