How do you solve a problem like Manchester United?

  • Removing Ole from the wheel may not be the only thing the struggling club needs to turn things around.
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.(REUTERS)
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.(REUTERS)
Published on Oct 28, 2021 09:32 PM IST
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“We imagined that having our fans there would push us through, but the match unfolded in a way that nobody expected. Not even the biggest pessimist saw that coming.” This was Fernandinho sharing his thoughts with ‘FourFourTwo’ on losing the World Cup semi-final 1-7 to Germany, but every syllable from the Manchester City captain would have fit at Old Trafford last Sunday.

With one win in their last three games and no clean sheets in their last nine, Manchester United hosted Liverpool, who had scored five goals in two of their last three away ties in all competitions. The difference in cohesion, in being clinical, was obvious but who would have expected Liverpool to lead 4-0 by half-time? Or that United would end the game with six yellow cards and a red?

Brazil didn’t collapse in grief after that 2014 semi-final; the red eye flight from Belo Horizonte to Sao Paulo was on time the next day, people idled at cafes and went to work. In the press room in the bowels of the Estadio Mineirao, coaches Joachim Loew and Luiz Felipe Scolari, victor and vanquished, agreed that this was a one-off. But there was also acknowledgment among football pundits and people at large that Brazil had a lot to learn from a top European team like Germany. Just like Manchester United do from Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City, the top three in the league now.

Bringing Tite as coach and retaining him despite an early exit in the 2018 World Cup has been a key takeaway for Brazil. Adenor Leonardo Bacchi or Tite helped salvage some lost glory by spectacularly turning around Brazil’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign—they lead this cycle too, six points ahead of Argentina after winning 10 of their 11 games. Tite’s vast experience as coach in Brazil and his using a sabbatical to learn best practices in Europe has helped shape Brazil into a team that blends pragmatism with panache. Fernandinho still plays for Brazil and referring to that semi-final has said, “something like that can’t define your life personally or professionally.”

That is what Manchester United would want when they line up at Tottenham on Saturday.

“As a United fan I didn’t really know what to say after Sunday,” tweeted Marcus Rashford. “I was embarrassed. I am embarrassed. Our fans are everything and you didn’t deserve that. We’re working hard to try and fix this. We have to redeem ourselves.”

The next three games, away to Spurs and Atalanta and at home to City, are crucial for the team to put their worst defeat to Liverpool at home since 1925 behind them. After United lost 1-6 to Spurs last season, they beat PSG and Newcastle and all was well. “Ole is setting his sights on United's next three games in a bid to fight back,” the club’s Twitter handle has said. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, despite a new three-year deal in July, would need a repeat if the job has to stay his when United travel to Watford on November 20.

Sack Solskjaer?

So, how do you solve a problem like Manchester United? For many, the answer is simple: sack Solskjaer. Managers have gone for lesser failures and Solskjaer’s staring into middle distance as Liverpool shredded his team didn’t inspire hope. There have been reports in the English press about Solskjaer having lost the dressing room and we know when such reports usually emerge. But United fans, supporters and the management have stood by the club legend. If he was spotted signing autographs after the 0-5 defeat, it meant there were faithfuls who believed that some bad results do not a season break.

From his confusion with Paul Pogba—who started on the bench on Sunday and then got on to try and salvage something—giving new deals to the rarely used Juan Mata and Eric Bailly, desperately seeking Jadon Sancho but starting him only thrice in the league, to holding on to Jesse Lingard and giving him zero starts, there may be a lot to say against Solskjaer.

Crucially, there is a lot to say in his favour too, given how he repaired things after Jose Mourinho. Mourinho, and the names touted as Solskjaer’s possible replacement, Antonio Conte and even Zinedine Zidane, are what Gary Neville, whose 20-year club career began and ended at Manchester United, calls “hitmen.” They are managers who disrupt, win trophies but leave little by way of a legacy. Four-and-a-half seasons without a trophy, it would be tempting to walk that route especially with Conte saying he is available.

But Manchester United’s biggest problem is the lack of balance in the squad and whoever is in charge is unlikely to be able to solve that in the short term. They have a bevy of attacking talent, whose individual ability can win against all but a handful of teams in Europe, but not enough resources in defence where Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka are out of form. A report in The Guardian said Maguire, preferred over Bailly in the 2-4 defeat against Leicester United despite one training session after an injury, has the worst error-leading-to-chance record among outfield players—7— at United in 7164 minutes of Premier League action since joining in 2019. And they are particularly depleted in central midfield where Fred is error-prone, Nemanja Matic is 33 and Pogba doesn’t fit. That often leaves Scot McTominay with too much to do. Needing Declan Rice, Manchester United got Cristiano Ronaldo.

There's Ronaldo, but there's no team

That brings us to the elephant in the room. With Ronaldo, you simply must have a team that plays around him and till the start of this season, United weren’t prepared for that. “You had Ronaldo but you no longer had a team,” the journalist Paolo Condo had told Sky Sport about the Portuguese’s time at Juventus. Using the pace of Rashford and Mason Greenwood, Solskjaer would line up teams that would rely on counter-attacks last term. Manchester United kept five clean sheets against ball-hugging sides such as Chelsea, City and Liverpool. Sancho’s pace and skill would have helped them play on the break this term too but with Ronaldo around that plan had to be shelved. No team would pass up the opportunity to sign Ronaldo, for football and other reasons, but to blame Solskjaer for the subsequent disruption could be unfair.

Ronaldo gets you goals, he has scored six in nine games in all competitions, but his defensive work isn’t great. That means others have to share that burden and that is not happening yet at United. Manchester United’s press looked shambolic against Liverpool, a team coached by a man who popularised gegenpressing at Borussia Dortmund. “When you press high, you have to do it with total intensity, going the last metre,” Klopp has said. Greenwood’s poor effort at doing that leading to the backline being dragged out of position and Naby Keita scoring was the exact opposite.

“What we did in the last third was insane. Pressing high, winning the ball and scoring wonderful goals,” Klopp told reporters after the 5-0 win. Forget being Liverpool—Rashford’s long backpass is proof of the kind of pressure they can put on the opposition—United are far from being a team that can do an organised press. Ronaldo leading the line certainly isn’t helping. “I think at times we are too easy to play,” Shaw has said.

New managers usually bring positive vibes, a renewed sense of purpose. Solskjaer did when he took over as caretaker. Maybe he should have stayed that especially with Mauricio Pochettino available. But from David Moyes to Louis van Gaal to Mourinho, United have delayed replacing managers and paid for it. Maybe they have got the timing wrong, again. But as with Barcelona, a new manager may not be all United need to revive hopes of ending an eight-season wait for the Premier League.


    Dhiman Sarkar is based in Kolkata with over two decades as a sports journalist. He writes mainly on football.

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