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Sunday, November 28, 2021

Explained: What caused Ole’s failure despite full backing at United?

Manchester United’s next game is a Champions League fixture, against Villarreal on Tuesday and Michael Carrick, a former club captain, will be in charge.

Written by Shamik Chakrabarty , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: November 22, 2021 9:41:17 am
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer applauds the fans after the final whistle of the English Premier League soccer match between Watford and Manchester United at Vicarage Road, Watford, England (AP)

Finally, it’s over. Around 4pm India time, Manchester United made Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s sacking official, after three years in charge. An emergency board meeting on Saturday night had agreed to call time on the Norwegian’s reign at United, with the decision rubber-stamped by the club’s owner and co-chairman Joel Glazer. On Sunday morning, United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward met Solskjaer at Carrington to hand the pink slip.

Boos rang out at the away end at Vicarage Road, after United lost 4-1 to promoted side Watford on Saturday. Solskjaer had been on borrowed time ever since United’s 5-0 hiding to arch rivals Liverpool. Saturday’s defeat broke the camel’s back. The cycle of managerial hire-and-fire continues – four in seven years – in the red half of Manchester, but why have United fallen off their perch so rapidly despite being one of the richest clubs in the world?

What was the club statement?

“Manchester United announces that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has left his role as manager,” said the club statement, adding: “Ole will always be a legend at Manchester United and it is with regret that we have reached this difficult decision.”

The club also confirmed that Michael Carrick would be the stop-gap, while an interim manager would be appointed until the end of the season.

United’s next game is a Champions League fixture, against Villarreal on Tuesday and Carrick, a former club captain, will be in charge.

How was Solskjaer’s tenure as manager?

Ever since his appointment in December 2018, first as a caretaker followed by a full-time role, the club has backed the Norwegian to the hilt. Things had turned toxic during Jose Mourinho’s last days at the club.

Solskjaer, being a club legend, carried a positive vibe. He reset the team culture. Despite his questionable managerial pedigree – a Cardiff City discard – he improved the situation at United, on and off the pitch, because he knew the club inside out. For the first time since Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, the club secured back-to-back top-four finishes in the Premier League under Solskjaer. This season, after an exciting summer transfer window that saw the acquisitions of Jadon Sancho, Raphael Varane and Cristiano Ronaldo, it felt like United will be title contenders. But things unravelled spectacularly, costing Solskjaer his job.

“While the past few weeks have been disappointing, they should not obscure all the work he has done over the past three years to rebuild the foundations for long-term success,” the club said in its statement on Sunday.

Several issues plague the club, starting with an ownership, which is apparently more concerned about dividends and profits from share sales, at the expense of the club’s values and history. The Glazers’ botched attempt to join the breakaway European Super League attested that. But the manager is the front office of a football club and the buck stops with him.

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, center, and Donny van de Beek, right, after the English Premier League soccer match between Watford and Manchester United at Vicarage Road, Watford, England (AP)

Who could replace Solskjaer?

United actually wasted two international breaks, when they had enough time to usher in a managerial change. Then again, options for the club at the moment are limited. Antonio Conte, a Premier League winner with Chelsea, was a free agent until he was roped in by Tottenham Hotspur. But according to reports, United never wanted the Italian, whose style is similar to Mourinho’s. Also, Conte rocks the boat. Leicester City manager Brendan Rodgers and Paris Saint-Germain’s Mauricio Pochettino are said to be the club’s top two preferences, but both are occupied at the moment and so is Ajax’s Erik ten Hag. All three conform to the United ethos of playing attacking football and giving youth a chance, but only two days back Rodgers had ruled out the possibility of leaving Leicester City mid-season and right now, Zinedine Zidane appears to be the only option left as regards to a permanent appointment.

However, the club has made it clear that an interim manager will see out the season and Laurent Blanc or Ralf Rangnick is tipped to be the man to take over.

Will Zidane be a good choice?

Zidane has the experience of managing Real Madrid and winning three consecutive Champions League titles with the club. His experience of working with Ronaldo and Varane might come in handy if he joins United. The downside is that Zidane doesn’t speak English. He has no experience in English football and at United, not only will he manage the world’s most popular club, he will also be in the toughest domestic league on the planet.

Did Solskjaer lose the dressing room?

Jesse Lingard’s Instagram post suggested so. Minutes after Solskjaer’s press conference on Friday, the United academy graduate posted a picture wearing a West Ham United shirt, a club where he resurrected his career under David Moyes during a loan spell last season. Contract negotiations between United and Lingard have collapsed and the playmaker looks set for a Hammers reunion next season on a free transfer.

Time and again, Solskjaer had publicly promised game time to Lingard and Donny van de Beek before reneging on his promise. When the latter was eventually brought on in the second half against Watford, he made an instant impact.

Even after the loss to Watford, Solskjaer insisted that he had the support of his players. “Of course, at the moment it’s a difficult time for us. I can trust every single one out there to give their all. The staff are fantastic, but the results are difficult. I believe we can turn this around,” he said, looking downbeat and seemingly resigned to his fate.

How bad is the situation at United?

Goalkeeper David de Gea’s post-match comment after the Watford humiliation summed up United’s situation at the moment. “Embarrassing first half; we could have conceded four goals in 45 minutes. It was hard to watch the team playing today – it was nightmare after nightmare. It’s not acceptable,” the Spaniard told BBC Sport.

Did the blame lie solely with Solskjaer?

As the fans were booing Solskjaer at Vicarage Road, Bruno Fernandes got involved in an argument with the away support, pointing towards himself and his teammates and suggesting that as players, they deserved the boos.

To start with, United Harry Maguire, a £80m signing from Leicester, has been a massive letdown in terms of performance on the pitch and in providing leadership. Little wonder then that his cupping-the-ears celebration after he scored for England against Albania didn’t go down well with United’s iconic former captain Roy Keane.

Zinedine Zidane, Real Madrid, Coach Zidane, Zidane Real Madrid, Ronaldo Zidane, La Liga, La Liga zidane, real madrid la liga champions Zinedine Zidane (AP Photo)

Except De Gea, no player has put in a consistent performance this term. The team has looked under-coached, with Solskjaer’s support staff, including Carrick, learning on the job. Varane’s injury has made matters worse.

What about the club hierarchy?

This is Woodward’s fourth managerial casualty after he became the de facto head of the club following David Gill’s retirement in 2013. A former investment banker, the outgoing executive vice-chairman has shown his naivety in football matters despite backing the managers with sufficient funds, including close to £400m for Solskjaer. The club never had a structure in place and belatedly appointed a director of football and a technical director after losing ground to Manchester City and Liverpool. United are now playing catch-up. Their rot goes far deeper than Solskjaer, from overpaid and underperforming players to the Glazers’ ownership that has reportedly drained £1 billion from the club.

Has Ronaldo’s signing augured well?

The 36-year-old forward has guaranteed goals, but looking back, Solskjaer would rue the signing. Ronaldo’s arrival has robbed the team of its high press, leading to a tactical conundrum. A substandard midfield got even more exposed, with the defence collapsing as a trickle-down effect. Solskjaer tried to address this by switching to a 3-5-2 formation, but it cancelled out Sancho, a £73m summer buy. Ronaldo’s signing considerably increased shirt sales at the expense of steel in the midfield, which Declan Rice’s arrival could have provided.

Can United save their season?

With 17 points from 12 matches, they are already out of the title race. But a top-four finish is still achievable, depending on the quality of the next managerial appointment. In the Champions League, United are effectively one win away from qualifying for the Round of 16, but the new manager will have to hit the ground running.

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