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Solskjaer not the cause of Man United's problems but a symptom of them

The Norwegian has come under fire amid the club’s disastrous start to the season.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has endured a difficult start to life as permanent Man United boss.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has endured a difficult start to life as permanent Man United boss.
Image: PA Wire/PA Images

Updated at 20.36

MAN UNITED HOST Liverpool on Sunday, and it’s hard to recall a time when the outlook at the club has been so bleak as it is now.

While their rivals sit eight points clear at the top of the table after eight games, having won every league match so far this season, the Red Devils are 12th amid a disastrous start that sees them currently just two points off the relegation zone.

It’s hard to believe given how generally underwhelming the post-Alex Ferguson years have been, but the club are threatening to sink to a new low.

After initially appearing to revive the club’s fortunes, during a whirlwind temporary stint, the promise of that early Solskjaer period has rapidly dissolved.

Since the Norwegian has taken charge on a long-term basis, they have accumulated just 17 points from 16 matches, including a run of only two wins in their last 13 games.

If they fail to win this weekend, it will be their worst start to a league campaign since 1986-87 — the inglorious end of the Ron Atkinson era.

The current turmoil is not purely down to Solskjaer and the players. Arguably more than anyone else, Ed Woodward and others primarily responsible for running the club are to blame for their current predicament.

There are multiple and complex reasons as to why the Red Devils are flagging so badly at the moment, but there are a couple of obvious recurring issues.

Firstly, the majority of the big decisions seem to have been dictated by emotion rather than logic.

Simply bowing to Alex Ferguson’s infamous demand and appointing David Moyes as his successor was a decision based for the most part on sentiment.

Though he had done an excellent job with limited resources at a club of relatively modest ambitions in Everton, there was little evidence to suggest Moyes was capable of satisfactorily overseeing a side of Man United’s stature.

The incoming boss inherited an ageing team, yet his three summer signings were Guillermo Varela, Saidy Janko and Marouane Fellaini. The former two never established themselves in the first team and Fellaini, while useful in some respects, was never really good enough to be a regular starter in a club with title-winning ambitions.

After spending £27.5 million on Fellaini, a further £37.1 million was spent on Juan Mata in January, but it was not enough to save Moyes, who was sacked less than a year into his six-year contract.

The Louis van Gaal appointment was thus a reaction to the Moyes debacle. Unlike the Scot, he was a coach with trophy-winning experience at the highest level.

And while the Red Devils made just two big-name signings under Moyes, they did the opposite thereafter, rolling the dice on a host of notable names.

Ander Herrera (undisclosed), Luke Shaw (undisclosed), Marcos Rojo (£16m), Ángel Di María (£59.7m), Radamel Falcao (loan) and Daley Blind (£14m) were brought in.

A mixture of experienced players (Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic) and promising youngsters (Wilfried Zaha, Michael Keane) were sold either for free or for minimal fees.

crystal-palace-v-manchester-united-emirates-fa-cup-final-wembley-stadium A number of coaches including Louis van Gaal have struggled to revive Man United. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

While none of the signings were unqualified successes, Van Gaal still managed to get United back in the Champions League and helped them win the FA Cup, yet the owners were not convinced and the lure of Jose Mourinho and supposed promise of instant success proved too strong to resist.

As was the case with the transition from Moyes to Van Gaal, the switch to Mourinho felt like another significant U-turn. The Red Devils went from possession football to a style that was heavily reliant on the long ball and the type of spoiling tactics for which the Portuguese coach is renowned. A player like Fellaini suddenly went from being expendable to indispensable, given his height and physicality, and its centrality to Mourinho’s gameplan.

Eric Bailly, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba were all brought in on big wages, with the France star costing £89m — a world-record fee at the time.

Players that were recruited under Van Gaal were either sold (Bastian Schweinsteiger, Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlin) or ostracised from the starting XI to a degree, causing their confidence to dwindle (Luke Shaw, Anthony Martial, Matteo Darmian).

Mourinho did enjoy limited success, winning the League Cup and Europa League, but he failed to truly restore past glories and was ultimately sacked, less than a year after extending his contract.

Again, with Solskjaer’s arrival, there was another radical shift in policy. Instead of experienced pros, the club decided they were going to put their faith in young players. Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez were sold, leading to farcical situations such as one occasion this season where United were forced to finish a match without a recognised striker.

The Norwegian began his term by channelling the spirit of the ’99 team, but as the club’s fortunes declined, he started criticising those who compared the present United team with sides of the past.

The appointment of Solskjaer, initially on an interim basis, felt quite random. He had no experience of managing at the top level — his previous coaching career consisted of stints at Man United reserves, Molde (twice) and Cardiff, with the Welsh club relegated from the Premier League during his time in charge.

And if there is one moment that serves as a metaphor for everything that has gone wrong with United over the past few seasons, it is surely the hysterical reaction that the fortuitous Champions League victory over PSG prompted.

Gary Neville suggested the club should build a “statue” to Solskjaer, while Rio Ferdinand insinuated they should let the Norwegian decide the terms of his contract. They were far from the only two pundits to be seduced amid the swell of optimism that a handful of notable results created.

The club too were seemingly head over heels with Ole, and offered him a permanent deal on the back of his impressive start, but crucially, before they had guaranteed Champions League football for the following season.

The situation quickly turned sour, as largely the same players that had collapsed under Mourinho quickly reverted to bad habits.

Remarkably, seven months on from that famous PSG victory, there is a sense now that Solskjaer could be on thin ice, particularly if the club suffer a humiliating defeat to Liverpool at the weekend.

But again, scapegoating the manager for deeper issues as the club search for another quick-fix solution would only serve to highlight what a mess they continue to find themselves in at all levels.

By contrast, at Liverpool and Man City, currently England’s two most successful clubs, there is a real sense of long-term vision in the running of the respective clubs. The manager and the higher-ups appear all on the same page, while the players recruited — rather than being content with big names as United appear to be — are of a particular style that fits with the clubs’ overriding philosophy and values. In short, they are everything United are not, nor have they ever been since the Alex Ferguson glory days.

Astonishingly for one of the biggest teams in the world commercially speaking, the Red Devils are a club who have been consistently dictated by knee-jerk reactions for six years and counting.

Upcoming Premier League fixtures (3pm kick-off unless stated otherwise)

Saturday

Everton v West Ham (12.30)
Aston Villa v Brighton
Bournemouth v Norwich
Chelsea v Newcastle
Leicester v Burnley
Tottenham v Watford
Wolves v Southampton
Crystal Palace v Man City (17.30)

Sunday

Man United v Liverpool (16.30)

Monday

Sheffield United v Arsenal (20.00)

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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