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Dublin: 10 °C Tuesday 19 November, 2019

Don't blame Sarri and Solskjaer if things don't work out for them - the problems are elsewhere

Chelsea and Manchester United meet in the FA Cup on Monday night, with both managers facing tough questions.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after Tuesday's reality check against PSG.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after Tuesday's reality check against PSG.
Image: Martin Rickett

POOR MAURIZIO SARRI has spent the last couple of weeks being licked by the flames of managerial pressure, and was so close to them on torturous trips back from Bournemouth and Manchester City that he could probably have leaned forward and lit a cigarette off them.

Should he earn a bit more relief by beating Manchester United in the fifth round of the FA Cup on Monday night, [KO 8pm, BBC One] then the focus will switch to Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer, and how he will respond to a run of games against higher-quality opposition.

In the last ten years, the Premier League has increasingly sold its storylines on the personalities of managers, and Monday’s cup tie will be seen through this prism: one man beginning to understand pressure; the other figuring out at what point it becomes unbearable.

There are a couple of reasons as to why a lot of the game is seen through this lens.

Given that the Premier League cannot reasonably claim to be the Best League in the World if their best players consistently migrate to Barcelona and Real Madrid, it has restyled itself as the home of the best managers, so there is a natural preponderance on said managers in the selling of games.

Manchester City v Chelsea - Premier League - Etihad Stadium Maurizio Sarri, scratching his head before Chelsea got shellacked 6-0 at Man City. Source: EMPICS Sport

Another deeper reason was posited by the New York Times’ Rory Smith on his podcast, Set-Piece Menu. He pointed out that England has never sustained a daily sports-only newspaper like Spain or Italy have, so in order to crowbar its way into as much space as possible, football has had to sell itself in a more basic way so as to be more easily understood by the classical Fleet Street editor.

Hence it is easier to understand games as if they were just a clash of personalities, as if it were a boxing match or – (shudders) – a general election.

This is too reductive a way of understanding something with as many moving parts as football, but it nonetheless persists and has been exacerbated as media outlets respond to – and are shaped by – social media discourse.

The ceaseless pursuit of this week’s managerial ‘fraud’ is the football fan’s version of the call-out culture rewarded by social media sites ; a culture described by critic Mark Fisher as being “driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd.”

All of these factors fuse into a kind of constantly spinning fortune’s wheel of football managers.

Sarri is the latest to be hauled into the middle of the town square by the braying masses, and if he staves off the flak, the chances are that his opposite number Solskjaer will be next in line.

But if Sarri is sacked by Chelsea and if Solskjaer isn’t given the United job on a full-time basis, then it isn’t necessarily evidence of some inherent failure or limitations on the part of either men.

Both have made mistakes, for sure: Sarri’s refusal to tweak his approach and re-locate N’Golo Kanté to help stop the bleeding against Man City last weekend would have been a good idea, while if Solskjaer had his time over, he may have brought on Romelu Lukaku and put Marcus Rashford on the wing instead of the skilful but slow Juan Mata against PSG.

But beyond their own errors, both have been hamstrung by the dysfunctions of their respective clubs. Both clubs are struggling to come to terms with the end of dynasties: Chelsea’s came from one man’s wallet while United’s was largely housed in one man’s head.

Chelsea v Arsenal - Premier League - Stamford Bridge Roman Abramovich, pictured in February 2017. Source: Steven Paston

As Roman Abramovich’s interest in Chelsea dwindles – he has suspended plans to redevelop Stamford Bridge and hasn’t spoken with Sarri in three weeks – they have become uncharacteristically sanguine in the transfer market, and departing players have been replaced by footballers of inferior quality. Only Kanté can be said to have been a true upgrade since Eden Hazard joined in 2012.

In their fumbling through managers, they have allowed Kevin De Bruyne and Mo Salah leave to become key players in the two best teams in the country, and they have now contrived to hire a manager whose outlook on the game does not involve Kanté.

The club’s pathological firing of managers has also bred a complacency among the players, who show little compunction in downing tools when a manager finds himself in difficulty.

At United, meanwhile, Solskjaer endured what he termed a “reality check” against PSG on Tuesday night. In this lengthy audition for the job on a permanent basis, some may point to last the midweek game and say that he was tactically out-thought at the highest level.

That’s not entirely fair: he lost his two pacy wide players to injury, and was forced to operate with Ashley Young at right-back, who was shredded by Angel Di Maria.

Money has been wasted elsewhere. It was yesterday revealed that it cost United €22 million to fire Jose Mourinho and his staff, taking their total payouts to sacked managers since Ferguson retired to €38 million…with David Moyes’ six-year contract yet to expire.

United’s continued reliance on an outdated managerial model – made successful largely through Ferguson’s genius – has left football decisions in the hands of businessmen, which has left a bloated and top-heavy squad whose limitations were exposed by PSG.

None of this is Solskjaer’s fault, so their being beaten so easily on Tuesday night is not a damning indictment of his quality as a manager.

United are on the cusp of belatedly appointing a Director of Football, and if they get appoint the right person, they will be better-placed to compete at the highest level.

Until they do, United fans will have to comfort themselves with the fact that Managing Director Richard Arnold is giddy about the club’s official app.

“I’m excited about the roadmap with the app and the enhancements to the user experience which will be coming soon. And I look forward to talking about them in May.”

When it comes to that time of the year, the biggest prizes will be handed out to United and Chelsea’s rivals, but don’t pin that on Sarri or Solskjaer.

The problems are above them.

FA Cup fifth-round fixtures (Kick-off 3pm unless stated) 


QPR v Watford (7.45pm) 


Brighton v Derby County (12.30pm) 

AFC Wimbledon v Millwall 

Newport County v Man City (5.30pm)


Bristol City v Wolves (1pm) 

Doncaster v Crystal Palace (4pm) 

Swansea City v Brentford (4pm) 


Chelsea v Man United (8pm)

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About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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