Ken Early: Solskjær is neither miracle man nor complete disaster
He has inherited a Manchester United squad of limited mobility and uncertain character
Ole Gunnar Solskjær: it’s a safe bet the board would be talking about sacking had they not hired him on a permanent basis less than a month ago. Photograph: Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Manchester United finally decided to sack José Mourinho in December after losing 3-1 at Anfield. Four months into the season, this was Mourinho’s seventh and final defeat.
If United lose again to Manchester City on Wednesday night, it will be Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s seventh defeat in a little over six weeks.
Their current run of six defeats in eight is already their worst run of form since 1989. Five successive away defeats is their worst run of away form for 38 years. They have gone 11 matches without a clean sheet – the longest such run since 1998 – and Theo Walcott’s goal was the 48th they had conceded this year in the league, making it their worst defensive performance since the foundation of the Premier League in 1992.
The speed with which they have unravelled since the 3-1 win against PSG is extraordinary and a little baffling. Solskjær, after all, had made the best start of any Premier League manager at a new club. He broke the club record of seven successive away wins by winning his first nine away from home.
The victory against PSG was the first time any club had recovered from losing a Champions League first leg 2-0 at home. Overall, Solskjær won 14 and lost just one of his first 17 matches in charge.
Now that United are on their worst run of form since the retirement of Alex Ferguson, social media is full of posts mocking the pundits who declared after the PSG win that United had found their chosen one. But those pundits were not alone: win 14 of your first 17 matches and people are going to get carried away, even if the statistics suggest you’ve been lucky and a correction is in the pipeline.
Beware the backlash
There is more than one way to get carried away. Just as it was unwise to hail Solskjær as a miracle man after that amazing initial run, there should not be a rush to dismiss him as a total disaster because United have started losing most of their games.
The question is: what has gone wrong? Solskjær’s own analysis is that the team is not making enough of an effort. Yet he seems unsure whether this is because they lack the right kind of fitness – a problem that can in theory be solved with a tailored pre-season training programme – or because they lack some other less tangible, but no less crucial, qualities.
Everton ran a collective 8km farther than United during the game, and this seemed to infuriate Solskjær almost as much as the 4-0 scoreline. When Mourinho was the manager, United usually finished at or near the bottom of the “distance covered” statistics, largely because Mourinho’s conservative game plan involved a lot of staying in formation behind the ball, and not a great deal of high pressing or other chasing. But Solskjær has a completely different interpretation of the game.
In his view, football is first and foremost about hard physical work. “It’s about sticking your head in where it hurts, block that shot, tackle ... put your body on the line. It hurts to win football games.”
His references to his own playing days at the club have become less frequent in recent weeks as results have taken a dip, but at Goodison he pointed out that during his time at United, even the most talented players understood that the first requirement was “you ran more than anyone, every single week”.
That hasn’t been the demand at Manchester United for three seasons now, and it’s obvious that if Solskjær wants to base the game plan around outworking the opposition, he’ll have to make major changes to the squad. Mourinho built his squad for size and height rather than mobility, and United are not going to set many distance records with players like Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic in the team.
Questioning the desire
Solskjær acknowledged yesterday that “we can’t change the whole squad, it’s got to be one step at a time. I’ve said all along, I’m going to be successful here. There are players here who won’t be part of that successful team, and there are other players who will.”
But which ones? Solskjær was asked yesterday if he felt, looking around the dressing room, that enough of his players cared deeply about playing for United.
“I don’t know,” he replied, eventually elaborating: “You’ve got to ask them. I’ve asked them. You won’t get the answer from me. But of course, if you want to play at this club, it has to mean more. I want my team to be the hardest-working team in the league. That’s what we were under Sir Alex. ”
That Solskjær is openly questioning players’ desire is remarkable, but he cannot ignore the sense at United right now that too many big players would rather be somewhere else.
The two main stars, David de Gea and Paul Pogba, have been linked with summer moves to other leagues, and neither of them is making much effort to reassure supporters that they see their futures in Manchester.
When the biggest players seem unsure about whether they want to stick around, it’s harder for the rest to believe that they are part of a team that is going places.
Defeat to Manchester City on Wednesday would make it seven defeats in nine – United’s worst run of form since 1963. This kind of run destroys a manager’s credibility, and it’s a safe bet that the board would now be talking about sacking Solskjær except for the fact that they only hired him on a permanent basis less than one month ago.
For now, they have no choice but to hope another correction is on its way, starting with a positive result against City.