https://www.bbc.com-By Phil McNulty-Chief football writer
Manchester United’s decision to sack manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was inevitable and should have brought an element of certainty to the recent chaotic events at Old Trafford.
It should have happened after the humiliating 5-0 loss at home to Liverpool. It could have happened after the embarrassing manner of their 2-0 derby defeat to Manchester City in front of their own support two weeks later.
It had to happen after they were nothing short of a shambles in losing 4-1 at relegation-troubled Watford.
Solskjaer’s appointment, his demise and the vague outline of a succession plan from Manchester United’s hapless hierarchy drives at the very heart of how this once mighty club have become also-rans.
What should have been an exercise in drawing a dignified line under what has become a fiasco in recent times managed to leave even more questions, as United announced Michael Carrick would be caretaker for now before an “interim” appointment until the end of season.
It suggests those running Manchester United have a plan in place to bring in a currently employed manager next summer. Their track record does not inspire huge confidence that they have this covered.
The notion of a caretaker then an interim certainly poses questions. Are United virtually writing their season off in November? Who is that interim candidate? What if the interim goes on the sort of run that lured United into appointing Solskjaer? What if this mystery interim figure cannot stop the current slide? Do United simply blunder on and lie in the bed they have made for themselves or shift position?
The full-time appointment in March 2019 of the Norwegian – who failed dismally at Cardiff City but who justifiably has huge currency at United as the man whose goal won the 1999 Champions League final against Bayern Munich at the Nou Camp – was a decision heavily laden with shot-in-the-dark sentiment rather than actual pedigree.
Much of the praise given to Solskjaer after his sacking focused on how he made Manchester United a happier place as effectively the anti-Jose Mourinho. All very well but the best way to make a football club, particularly Manchester United, a happy place is by winning trophies.
Even when he was handed the job permanently, it seemed an unnecessarily hasty move. Why not wait a few weeks until the end of the season? The bounce under Solskjaer had already started to flatten out by that campaign’s conclusion.
Solskjaer spent £400m on losing every major semi-final and final United reached under him – two Europa League semi-finals, an FA Cup semi-final, a League Cup semi-final and last season’s Europa League final when United were overwhelming favourites against Villarreal.
A nearly manager managing a nearly team.
He was rewarded with a new three-year contract with executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward claiming United were “heading in the right direction” under Solskjaer.
Woodward had explained United were undergoing “a cultural reboot” when the Norwegian was given the job full-time but what does that actually mean in football terms? It was meant to mean attacking, winning football, giving youth a chance… the so-called Manchester United DNA.
Solskjaer has taken the ultimate responsibility, as managers do, but to suggest he is solely to blame for the complete mess Manchester United find themselves in is unfair on him and allows other culprits to escape.
He was betrayed by his players on too many occasions, especially in recent weeks when faith seemed completely lost, the usual whispers of discontent emerged and United looked like a team that was either under-coached or where the coaches’ plans were being ignored.
United’s power brokers seem to operate on a wing and a prayer. What had Solskjaer done to earn his new three-year deal in the summer? Why the hurry? Why was his assistant Mike Phelan given a new contract until 2024 in early October when there were already signs that Solskjaer could soon be under serious pressure?
Watford 4-1 Manchester United: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will take the flak for United loss
United appeared to have a prime candidate waiting for the call in Antonio Conte after they were ripped apart by Liverpool but something about the Italian – a Premier League and FA Cup winner in two seasons at Chelsea – put them off. Too high maintenance? Too expensive?
Conte had the pedigree. He has proved he can handle big clubs. It might have been ‘scorched earth’ for a while but it might not. He is a proven winner.
Tottenham had no such reservations and took their chance. Whether this turns out to be yet another colossal mistake by Manchester United remains to be seen. Spurs chairman Daniel Levy, who has made plenty of mistakes of his own, was at least decisive and may yet have pulled off a master stroke.
United’s indecision eventually proved final for Solskjaer.
The logical thought process suggests United are laying the groundwork for a smooth transition next summer when maybe Paris St-Germain’s Mauricio Pochettino, who was actually the most suitable successor to Mourinho, Ajax’s Erik ten Haag, Leicester City manager Brendan Rodgers, Zinedine Zidane or some other candidate can take the helm.
This all depends on United having a plan. You would hope they have one. Expect it? Not necessarily. There are plenty of imponderables in that short list alone.
When the spotlight moves away from Solskjaer, it should shine a very harsh light on Woodward, soon to leave Old Trafford, and owners the Glazers. The manager must not carry the can for them. He does not deserve that.
United have fumbled a succession of managerial appointments and are now left scrambling around, especially when viewed through the prism of their rivals, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City.
Those clubs have shown ruthless decisiveness when seeking managers. Pep Guardiola was long courted then landed by Manchester City. Liverpool sacked Brendan Rodgers knowing Jurgen Klopp was available. Chelsea did the same to Frank Lampard with Thomas Tuchel in the background.
United had chances to get Guardiola and Klopp in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era but could get neither over the line. Pochettino was out of work for more than a year after being sacked by Spurs. Chelsea pounced on Tuchel and ended up winning the Champions League just five months later. United stood by Solskjaer despite ominous signs.
Woodward and the Glazers have cultivated a culture of mediocrity at ‘the theatre of dreams’ that goes way beyond Solskjaer, mixing bad decisions with the sort of indecision witnessed in the former manager’s long and painful departure. The bar has been set low by those running Manchester United and the price is being paid now.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s signing was painted as a glorious coup pulled off at Manchester City’s expense, although the suspicion lingers it was done in a panic to stop the great man pitching up at Etihad Stadium, with added commercial value.
Ronaldo has shown flashes of brilliance but he has also been part of the shameful losses at Leicester City, home to Liverpool and Manchester City and then away to Watford. He is a wonderful marketing tool and still a magnificent footballer but he is not the player he was (how could he be?) and somewhat at odds with Woodward’s much-heralded “cultural reboot”.
How this current malaise is cured will shape the future. It is certainly a huge task for managing director Richard Arnold, who is expected to succeed Woodward, especially with the unloved Glazers operating at their usual distance from Old Trafford.
Manchester United cannot afford to get this next one wrong but, to the concern of fans who showed genuine support and sympathy for Solskjaer until it was virtually impossible to offer any more, they have form for doing exactly that.
Solskjaer has lost his dream job as Manchester United manager – but in no way can the club’s current parlous plight be wholly pinned on him.