So, another cup exit for Manchester United and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. You do start to wonder how much longer the board will continue to back him after two and half years in the job. They will be expecting some return on their investment in him as a manager. Not only did they take him when his only other job in the Premier League had been failing to prevent Cardiff City from being relegated, but they have also invested heavily in the squad to try and give him the best chance to succeed in the job. For that, they have a slightly improved league position. And nothing else. They’ve reached four semi-finals under Solskjaer’s stewardship. They’ve lost all four. That is a worrying record for any manager, let alone a Manchester United manager.
I have always had the feeling that Solskjaer has been flattering to deceive as Manchester United manager. They will go on undefeated runs and start to look like potential contenders for silverware, only to fall by the wayside when they need to show up and perform in crucial games. Solskjaer can make all the arguments he likes about trophies massaging egos and not being a denominator of true progress, but they are the currency by which a football club measures success. And for a club that has won so much over the last 40 years, that is the case even more so. I am certain that Arsenal have stuck with Mikel Arteta, despite their sputtering league form, is that he delivered a cup success. Solskjaer has been in the job for a good year-and-a-half longer than Arteta at Arsenal and has failed to deliver United a trophy. There is no reason to think that the Red Devils can’t go on and claim the Europa League this season, because they very well could. They have one of the best squads in the competition, and have recent history winning it as well, claiming the trophy in 2017 under Jose Mourinho. But Solskjaer’s record in big knockout games is not good. He needs to get over that mental roadblock before he can even think about a potential first trophy. Although we have seen that even that is sometimes not enough for managers to keep their jobs at Old Trafford. Both Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho were sacked despite both winning trophies at Manchester United.
His line-up for the game against Leicester City at the weekend was baffling. That was not the game to rotate as heavily as he did. Yes, they had played away in Milan the Thursday before, and it was a tight difficult game; but this was the final game before an international break, with an F.A. Cup semi-final place up for grabs. Whats more, they were playing a side that you really can’t afford to take chances with these days. Leicester are a very well drilled, well coached and motivated set of players who are delivering great performances regularly. I would go so far as to argue that the current Leicester City team is better than the one that won the title; so why did Solskjaer take the risk? Thomas Tuchel could afford to rotate his squad. There were a number of players that deserved some playing time in the first team, Chelsea had also played a European game in midweek against a tough opponent. But the Blues were playing Sheffield United, who are rooted to the bottom of Premier League table, seemingly destined for relegation. The Blades had also split with Chris Wilder less than a week before the game at Stamford Bridge and have found goalscoring hard to come by this season. Leicester are not a side in that kind of situation, so why did Solskjaer take that chance?
Something else that Sunday’s defeat points out to me is that Manchester United’s recruitment as a whole has not been good enough for a number of years now. Bruno Fernandes has been brilliant since he arrived, taking a side that were looking to be in danger of not qualifying for the Champions League and helping them to achieve that goal at a canter. Marcus Rashford is also a very fine player and Mason Greenwood is a very promising youngster. Paul Pogba, no matter what you say about his motivation or his hairstyle or the clothes he wears, is also an absolutely quality player; he is a World Cup winner who scored in the final in case you forgot. But the rest of the squad just doesn’t measure up. For all the money that has been spent on the defence, their performance against Leicester and many others besides simply was not good enough. For the second goal, they backed off and backed off until Tielemans was right on top of their goal. Their marking for the third was atrocious as well. If they are that easy to score against, they are never going to get anywhere. Donny Van de Beek was a star at Ajax but has never been given a solid run of games in the United side. Given the chance on Sunday, he failed to impose himself on the game. If Manchester United want to be challenging for the major trophies as regularly as they were under Sir Alex Ferguson, they need to look at their recruitment strategy. Because, from the outside, it looks like they are buying players at the wrong time for too much money. Fred has often struggled at United despite plenty of time in the first team. His howler that laid Iheanacho’s first goal on a silver platter for him was not the first we have seen from the Brazilian.
But the other problem may be the man at the helm of the first team. There are no real managers anymore, especially not at the bigger clubs. No one has that sort of influence right the way through the club. And I would argue that most managers at big clubs do not get given the time and support to flourish and succeed in the job. Frank Lampard was supported in the transfer market after a season restricted to using the academy players to bolster the first team squad. It could be argued however, that he wasn’t given the time to grow into the job; there was no plan for it all to come to fruition in two or three, or even five years time. Chelsea wanted success this season. But ever since Roman Abramovich took over the club, that has been how they have operated. If results aren’t what you want them to be, replace the manager before too much damage is done. Manchester United will have given Ole Gunnar Solskjaer two full seasons in charge by the end of this season. If he doesn’t win the Europa League, I would think the Manchester United hierarchy would have a serious decision to make whether Solskjaer continues in the job.