Did Man United jump the gun by making Solskjaer permanent?
Manager given job by reeling off a streak of results we know not to be his true measure
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s current win rate is unsustainable. Photograph: Getty Images
There was much hilarity online last week when all the various twos and twos around the appointment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer apparently added up to the five of Virgil van Dijk getting kicked out of his house. The Liverpool defender is currently renting Solskjaer’s old gaff but now that the Norwegian is safely ensconced at Old Trafford, he’ll be moving the family over and installing them permanently in their house in the Cheshire footballer belt. Hence the Virgilectomy.
As stories that are too good for a fact-check go, it’s right up there. The idea of Solskjaer nobbling Liverpool’s title race by putting their best defender through the horrors of house-hunting in early April must be irresistible to Manchester United fans. On the flipside, van Dijk has two kids under the age of five – Solskjaer might want to give him a month or two to get the place into some sort of presentable shape. If you think a multi-millionaire footballer is hard to boss around, try doing it to a toddler armed with a crayon.
Through it all, probably the most pertinent question went unasked. Who will be bedding down in the gold-plated postcodes of England’s northwest the longest – Solskjaer at United or Van Dijk at Liverpool? Van Dijk is 28 in the summer and is too important to Liverpool for anything short of insane money to see him moving in the next couple of seasons. It’s entirely plausible that he could be around for and through the end of his current contract in 2023.
For Solskjaer, that sort of timescale feels a little optimistic. In the short-to-medium term, he’s golden, whatever happens. Regardless of results, he will certainly be given the whole of next season. Anything less would fail the Malcolm Tucker test for getting rid of bungling cabinet ministers – “Sacked in 12 months, looks like you f**ked up. Sacked in a week, looks like we f**ked up.”
United have had three swings at this in a row and each of them ended in the football equivalent of sacked in a week. They will obviously be keen not to complete the quadruple. Which makes it all the more curious that they’ve pulled the trigger on Solskjaer this early.
All managerial appointments are a punt. Doesn’t matter the sport, doesn’t matter the team, doesn’t matter the context. Every one of them involves crossing your fingers and hoping for the best at a certain point. You do your due diligence, you frame the sort of job want done and the sort of person you want to do it, you prepare the ground as best you can. But eventually, there comes a time when you have to press the button.
United had something here that almost no organisation ever has. They had time. The button didn’t need to be pressed yet. Solskjaer has made a fairly irresistible case for the gig, it’s true. But he wasn’t going anywhere. He wasn’t auditioning for any job other than the one United had complete control over offering him. There was zero danger of losing him to another offer.
The argument that they wanted to show confidence in him makes no sense. They had previously wanted to show confidence in David Moyes and so they gave him a six-year contract. It didn’t make a blind bit of difference. Anyway, what need has Solskjaer of their confidence? Nobody is more adored around the club just now – he’d have been a happy bunny all the way to the summer one way or the other.
If they did it to get or keep the fans on side, they’re even more hapless than they’ve been letting on. Every club has a DNA and the smartest owners know how to pay homage to it and to use it as an engine. They also know not to be in thrall to it. Appointing Solskjaer now was the easiest move for United to make. The fact that it was also the most popular ought to have given them pause, though.
What do they know about Solskjaer’s managerial capabilities? They know that he can be a unifying figure in a place where before there was a rabble. They know that he gets the club, something all three of his predecessors struggled with. They know that he is more than just a feel-good story too, especially when it comes to some of the tactical flexibility he has shown. They know that his team is playing for him.
Here’s the one thing they know for absolute certain, though. They know this can’t last. United have won 11 out of 14 games under him in the league since mid-December, drawn two and lost one. If they beat Wolves tomorrow night, that puts his win percentage in the league at 80 per cent. Pep Guardiola’s league win percentage at Manchester City stands at a ridiculous 74.7. Jurgen Klopp’s at Liverpool is 57.6.
Nobody has the first idea where Solskjaer’s number will level out. At the minute, he’s like the golfer Jordan Spieth in that two-year stretch where he never seemed to miss a putt. He wasn’t the longest hitter in the game, he hadn’t the most bomb-proof wedge game but not of that mattered because he just kept holing everything. But that’s not sustainable. Putting is too hard and the margins are too fine.
Same with Solskjaer. At his current rate of gathering points in the Premier League, United would end a normal season with 95 points. That’s only been beaten once since the competition started – by City last year. Under Alex Ferguson, United only reached 90 three times and their highest was 92. This isn’t how it’s going to be. Nobody can say with any confidence where he will end up.
At the minute, nobody even knows if they’ll be playing Champions League football next year. It’s perfectly conceivable that gravity will kick in over the coming weeks and they could finish fifth, with Barcelona knocking them out of Europe into the bargain. If that turns out to be the case, would it not have made sense for United to give themselves the leeway to at least have a discussion?
That they didn’t is good news for Solskjaer, who has earned one of the biggest jobs in world sport by reeling off a streak of results we know not to be his true measure. It’s good news for Tottenham, who can dance a jig knowing that Mauricio Pochettino is going nowhere – and they didn’t even have to get down and dirty in a fight to keep him. Most of all, it’s good news for van Dijk’s estate agent who even as we speak must be scouting some palatial piles of bricks for his man to move into in the coming weeks.
But is it good news for Manchester United? The verdict on that is far less clear.