Keith Duggan: Critical weeks ahead for United and nice guy Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Vultures of impatience already beginning to circle in the grey skies over Manchester

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer started without Cristiano Ronaldo against Everton. Photograph: Getty Images

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer started without Cristiano Ronaldo against Everton. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer threw his head into his arms in a show of mock despair after being asked whether Cristiano Ronaldo had ‘told him’ that his Manchester United team needed to move the ball faster.

This was about an hour after United had drawn a goal apiece against Everton. It was not hard to imagine the atmosphere if anyone had dared ask the same question of Alex Ferguson: the withering death stare, the lips pursed, the prolonged silence, the cutting reply as the temperature plummeted to -15 degrees. Solskjaer just laughed a little tiredly and politely dismissed the rumour.

It was another reminder that the quietly spoken and well-regarded Norwegian currently occupies the loneliest job in world sport. Late October and already the annual vultures of doubt and impatience are beginning to circle in the grey skies over Manchester. United are sitting pretty in the Premier League but as Gary Neville warned ominously this week, they haven’t kicked a ball against elite opposition yet.

Saturday’s game away to Brendan Rogers’ Leicester team marks the beginning of what seems like a crucial month in the life of the United manager. A torrid run of games will see Liverpool (October 24th) and Manchester City (November 6th) visit Old Trafford. United also play Tottenham away and have a pair of Champions League games against Atalanta to negotiate in that time.

An optimistic view is that his expensive, newly minted side will announce their title credentials with gung-ho home wins against the league champions of the last two years. Marcus Rashford, who has emerged as a kind of social beacon in England, has thrived under Solskjaer and is on the verge of returning from injury: his presence might fully ignite the Ronaldo era mark II.

Equally plausible is the darker scenario of those daunting games exposing the shortcomings that many United fans – and detractors – have seen in United’s play. Nobody, including the manager, seems to know what the best central midfield partnership should be and if they possess one that will thrive.

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is under pressure to deliver silverware. Photograph: EPA
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is under pressure to deliver silverware. Photograph: EPA

The Ronaldo experiment has been a success – so far. Whether he issued unwanted advice to the manager or not, the manner in which Ronaldo walked off the pitch after the Everton game advertised that the prince was not best pleased with his substitute’s role.

Meanwhile, Alex Ferguson was politely hosting Khabib Nurmagomedov - the former UFC fighter and a guest at Old Trafford - when his entourage phone-videoed what was meant to be a private chat with the former boss. “I know, but you should always start your best players,” Ferguson said in a fleeting discussion about Ronaldo which was soon uploaded onto social media.

It was a crass breach of Ferguson’s hospitality. And it illuminated the fragility of United’s position just now. Ferguson is behind Solskjaer. Choosing to rest Ronaldo against Everton was a bold decision by the manager, who probably had the upcoming schedule in mind as well as the bruising English winter ahead. But the simplicity of Ferguson’s remark was a haunting throwback to the clarity and pragmatism with which he had ruled Old Trafford – and English football – for almost two decades. Ferguson sounded baffled.

It is extraordinary that they trusted such a young, unproven manager with running the show for them

It took the club 15 largely wasted years and four managers to shake off the cult of Matt Busby before stumbling on Ferguson, the flint-eyed Scot with a combustible temper. Twenty five years came and went between Busby’s last title and Ferguson’s first. It’s a perilous business, being the best. Solskjaer is United’s fifth manager since Ferguson signed off with a league title he won on automatic in 2013.

When Solskjaer arrived in November 2018, he was like a beam of dazzling sunlight following Jose Mourinho’s turn as a gloomy and moody Hamlet. Here, returned, was a beloved figure and an emblem of the indomitable years. Solskjaer spoke flawless English with an accent that is part Morten Harkett, part Steve McDonald. He understood and loved the club. He was smart and tenacious and a decorated player.

There followed the unlikely tear of brilliant results, Gary Neville’s giddy endorsement on television after a big win over PSG (“Where would you like the statue?”) and his sudden elevation to permanent status. The underlying fact of a managerial record that was extraordinarily modest was ignored or glossed over.

United had tried the strongman managers and it hadn’t worked. Now they went with instinct and the flow of public mood and the fuzzy sense of happiness that Ole seemed to disseminate like a pleasant cologne. He was the right ‘fit’.

Like all elite sports franchises, Manchester United is a colossal business enterprise whose local and global fan-base ensures that the furnace of revenue potential will keep roaring. It is extraordinary that they trusted such a young, unproven manager with running the show for them. And the show means winning stuff.

So far, the signs that Ole is the man to do this have made for tricky reading. The biggest flaw in the latest version of United is that they have no unique identity. Brendan Rogers has only been Leicester manager since 2019 but has them playing a brand of football which is consistent and recognisable – and has won an FA Cup.

Too often, United look like a loose brand of excellent, expensively assembled footballers who sometimes win and sometimes don’t. Solskjaer has carried the burden of fixing United with remarkable grace and lightness.

It’s obvious that he is a very decent and reasonable person. But reasonableness might well be a detriment when it comes to whipping such an unwieldy beast as Manchester United into shape.

A critical few weeks lie ahead for United, carrying with them the possibility that the biggest job in the biggest club in football will ultimately chew up and spit up one of its most loyal sons.

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