The thing is though, who would replace him? Solskjaer has done a pretty decent job to get United out of the pit they had found themselves in as Jose-third-season-syndrome took hold, but he is in his third full season in charge now, and they seem no closer to returning to the summit of English football.
There is no doubting Solskjaer’s commitment to the job or his standing with the United fans after a stellar playing career with the Red Devils during the height of Sir Alex Ferguson’s dominance. He was handed the reigns on a temporary basis, just to see United through to the end of the season, before an unprecedented run of form saw him made permanent boss. And United have stuck by him, looking to institute another dynasty to take them back to the spot they occupied for so long at the top of the English game. That has seen money spent freely every summer transfer window that Solskjaer has been at the club; that didn’t change in the last window, with Jadon Sancho finally brought to the club, Raphael Varane prized from Real Madrid and the much-vaunted return of Cristiano Ronaldo to Manchester, more than a decade after he left. Yet, United currently sit fifth in the table, behind West Ham and out of the Champions League places. Results have somewhat disguised poor performances, often being rescued by individual moments of brilliance and comebacks. The pressure was starting to build before being shot into the stratosphere by the 5-0 mauling that was laid on by Liverpool at Old Trafford. Reminders came thick and fast that this was the same manager who had lost 6-1 at home the previous season to a Tottenham team managed by the man that Solskjaer had replaced. That despite all the money spent and time given, United had failed to win a trophy under Solskjaer’s management, failing to even reach a final before last season’s Europa League final which they then contrived to lose to Villareal. A good result last Saturday has bought Solskjaer time and perhaps a guide as to what to do with this United team going forward.
The Liverpool defeat was a masterclass in naivete and ridiculously flawed thinking. Trying to play on the front foot with a high press against one of the best sides at playing through a press. Not only would Liverpool be able to play through whatever Solskjaer may have wanted to do defensively, the players didn’t appear to be able to do it. Sometimes they would press, sometimes they wouldn’t. Ronaldo doesn’t press at all, he waits for the rest of the team to get the ball back so he can affect things further up the pitch. For the game against Spurs, Solskjaer put a tactical mindset in place that aped the one used early on in his reign; sitting back, keeping a solid defensive shape and then looking to break up the field at pace, using the attacking talent that is overloading the United squad. This plays to the strengths of Manchester United anyway. Their attacking players aren’t good enough at a high press to do it effectively, so don’t do it. Sit back, keep your shape, let the opposition play in front of you before you spring forward when they are out of their defensive shape. This is something that Solskjaer might look to keep going forward. But it is far too late for him to just have had this realization now.
Graeme Souness raised the question of Solskjaer’s managerial experience before taking over at Old Trafford. I think it is a good point to make. Before becoming United manager, Solskjaer’s prior managerial experience had been at Molde in Norway, where he achieved a good amount of success winning the Norwegian league twice and the national cup once, and at Cardiff City where he failed to keep them from being relegated. Solskjaer has been in effect learning on the job. You need experience at a decent level before you take on a job like Manchester United. I wanted it to work out wonderfully for Frank Lampard at Chelsea, but I just think that he simply wasn’t ready to take on a job like that, with only a season’s experience of management in the Championship.
Tottenham have acted quickly, perhaps slightly too quickly in dismissing Nuno Espirito Santo. Just 17 games in charge and Daniel Levy has seen enough to realise that hiring Nuno was a mistake. Now they’ve managed to convince Antonio Conte to join. In signing Conte, Tottenham have a manager that can turn around a troubled squad very quickly and can lead them to success. He did it at Juventus, he did it at Chelsea, he did it at Inter. Something has clearly changed now, that hadn’t been the case in the summer. But they have got someone in who can take the club forward and maybe break through the glass ceiling that Spurs have been operating under since their last piece of silverware in 2008. Solskjaer has steadied the ship at United and has assembled a supremely talented, if unbalanced, squad that could take United over that last hurdle and back to winning trophies regularly. But I don’t see any evidence that he is the man to take them there. He has been at the wheel for too long.