Ole Gunnar Solskjær Needs More Time and Respect at Manchester United
It has been widely reported, not entirely without glee, that Manchester United have had their worst start to a league season since 1989-90. Plenty of those reports have excluded one not insignificant detail; that the manager of the club back then was Alex Ferguson.
It is easy to forget how truly abysmal Ferguson’s United were between 1988 and 1990. They made the current lot look like freewheeling entertainers by comparison. In April 1989, United scored one goal in five games – and that was an own goal by Tony Adams, all his own work.
The subsequent success of Ferguson should logically carry the power of a judicial precedent. But giving managers time is an endangered concept, and there is a good chance that Manchester United’s endless transition will continue with a fourth change of manager in six years.
There are understandable concerns that the scale of the job is too great for Ole Gunnar Solskjær. But no one really knows; not Solskjær himself, certainly not Twitter’s finest. And the rush to print another P45 wilfully ignores both mitigating circumstances for their recent form and the good work that Solskjær has done since taking over.
Solskjær is the first manager since Ferguson who has attempted to rebuild rather than live hand to mouth and game to game. United have been decaying since the Glazers pillaged them in 2005. Ferguson’s genius masked that for a time, but now United are back where he found them, in urgent need of change from top to bottom.
Of the four managers at Old Trafford since Ferguson, Solskjær has been easily the best in the transfer market. His signings so far are both instant hits and part of a long-term plan. His predecessors bought all kinds of wrong, in terms of ability, character or both, and José Mourinho in particular has some front playing the mistreated sage given all he had to show for spending £350m.
Solskjær has been widely criticised for not replacing Romelu Lukaku, but he recognised that teams with Lukaku in them don’t win trophies. Solskjær wanted more from a No 9, and effectively replaced Lukaku with Anthony Martial (who in turn was replaced by Daniel James). That decision looked inspired in the first few games, with Martial sharper than at any stage since his first season at the club. Then he injured a thigh against Crystal Palace.
Solskjær was without six of his first-choice team in the last match at Newcastle. United may be 12th in the league but they are flying high in one table; only Norwich City have more players out through injury. Solskjær inherited an inadequate, poisonous mess of a squad, put together by four managers, and now he has a major injury crisis as well. In any sane culture these are mitigating circumstances.
Those who aren’t injured are painfully low on confidence; and, unlike his predecessors, Solskjær does not have a peak David de Gea turning defeats into draws and draws into wins. Good luck to anyone in those circumstances. Pep Guardiola could defect to Old Trafford tomorrow, citing a long-standing ambition to work with Phil Jones, and it would make no difference in the short term. There is no quick fix at United. The mess is too great. They hired the king of instant success in Mourinho and even that didn’t really work out. United have a simple choice between potential long-term success under Solskjær and guaranteed long‑term failure under a load of different managers.
This should be an exciting time for United supporters, a chance to potentially experience a modern equivalent of the magical rebirth under Tommy Docherty. And any success under Solskjær would be worth far more than under somebody such as Mourinho or David Moyes.
There is no point denying that United’s attacking play in recent matches has been dreadful. The team look like they have forgotten how to shoot, never mind score, and it’s hard to reconcile some of Solskjær’s recent decisions and demeanour with the shiny, happy manager who took over at the end of last year. But the fact he won 14 of his first 17 games counts for something.
Under Solskjær, United have been both thrilling and boring; aggressive and passive; tactically smart and tactically rigid. It’s unusual and confusing, but until we see more – a lot more – we can’t know which is representative. Given the scale of the job, and especially his status at United, he deserves time to come to terms with it. Even Ferguson – Sir Alex Bloody Ferguson, the greatest manager in history – looked out of his depth for a few years. Solskjær also deserves far more respect, particularly from United fans. (On this subject, I speak with the evangelical zeal of the reformed moron.)
It would be unfair to say there is an anti-Solskjær agenda in the media, both traditional and social, not least because that would give far too much credit to a scattergun process. But there is certainly an anti-Solskjær mood. There are probably a few reasons for this – the reliability of a United bad-news story, residual hatred from the Ferguson years and a frankly pathetic snobbery about Scandinavian football. Most of all, there is a culture of instant gratification, unrealistic expectations and brattish demands that has made football management harder than ever.
That mood has, probably unconsciously, contributed to a certain economy with the truth in the reporting of United this season. There has been little talk of their injuries and markedly improved defence, and hardly any of the fact they were robbed by VAR against Crystal Palace and Arsenal. Even our new friend Expected Goals, who normally has plenty to say, has gone quiet.
At the end of last season there were plenty of self-satisfied observations that Solskjær should not have been given the job permanently because his xG wasn’t very good even when he was winning twice a week. Few have commented on United’s xG this season, which has them third in every table we could find on the internet. Even those of us who don’t really care for xG would accept that, if the prosecution is able to use it as evidence, then the defence should be allowed to as well.
Solskjær is second on the expected sackings list, behind Everton’s Marco Silva. There isn’t just a sacking culture in football; in the media, certainly, it’s a sacking cult. Every time a manager is under pressure we get the same rituals; the same bloodlust; the same grave expression on newsreaders’ faces as we are solemnly informed that so-and-so’s weekly press conference is scheduled for 10am.
There is no greater indictment of football’s descent into reality TV than the infantile nonsense that has made it normal, almost compulsory, to get rid of a manager at the first sign of trouble. That big old mess in the White House; he’d have sacked Solskjær already. There has to be a moral in that.
The Guardian Sport