Manchester United: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could keep job despite derby defeat
Manchester United’s derby defeat by City on Saturday brought more calls for the dismissal of manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
The nature of the 2-0 loss against Pep Guardiola’s men, coming less than a fortnight after the record 5-0 home humiliation by Liverpool, has led many – including fans who have previously backed Solskjaer – to conclude the Norwegian has taken United as far as he can.
Yet, despite the comprehensive defeats against their biggest rivals, and a run of form that has seen them collect just four points from their last six Premier League games, there is still no indication from Old Trafford that a change is going to take place.
It would be brave to state definitively that Solskjaer was safe given international breaks are notoriously a time when clubs get rid of managers – Aston Villa, Norwich and Middlesbrough have already done so since their weekend games finished.
But, to the incredulity and bewilderment of many observers, he could well survive.
The case for sticking with Solskjaer
Former United skipper Gary Neville has made the point that United’s troubles have arrived quickly.
This is correct. Although they had dropped points at Southampton, when Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice in his first game since a much-publicised return to the club against Newcastle on 11 September, Old Trafford seemed a happy place on and off the pitch.
Since then, United have won four out of 12 games. Of those successes, the Premier League victory at West Ham was only secured after Mark Noble missed an injury-time penalty.
In the Champions League, Villarreal were the better side at Old Trafford and Atalanta led 2-0. Both were defeated by late Cristiano Ronaldo goals. The Portuguese was also responsible for the late equaliser against Atalanta in Italy that kept United top of their Champions League group with two games remaining.
The dip in form has been sudden and extreme.
United gave Solskjaer a new three-year contract in the summer after a second-place finish and a run to the Europa League final. They followed that up by securing assistant manager Mike Phelan on a similar deal, while talks continue with coaches Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna about contract extensions.
The club’s hierarchy wanted Solskjaer to execute a long-term plan and felt he was the best person for that job because he knows and understands the club.
It may be towards the extreme end of the scale, but since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013 – before which the dismissal of a manager hadn’t been considered for two decades – United have tried to keep faith with managers during tough periods.
They also understand the club’s worldwide status means the reaction to these difficult times will be intense.
If Solskjaer goes, what then?
Evidently, sacking a manager is not that hard. Getting the right replacement is the tough bit.
Given he was out of work when United lost to Liverpool and accepted an offer to return from Tottenham, it is clear Antonio Conte could have been hired if there had been a will to do so.
But United do not want a short-term, quick-fix manager.
They want someone who can build a squad and work with them, mixing, in the club’s own words ‘world-class recruits’ with ‘academy graduates’.
The most obvious managers who fit that template are Mauricio Pochettino, Brendan Rodgers and Erik ten Hag.
Pochettino had his contract extended by Paris St-Germain in July. That was seen as a way of warding off interest from Tottenham and getting the Argentine now would appear massively problematic.
Rodgers has turned down jobs since he has been at Leicester, but did join the Foxes from Celtic in mid-season. However, his status as a former Liverpool manager is an issue for some United fans and it has been noted Leicester’s form has dipped this season.
A former coach at Bayern Munich, Ten Hag declined to leave Ajax to return to Munich part way through a campaign when Hansi Flick got the job in 2019. It would not seem Ten Hag would be the easiest immediate appointment either for United.
What is the aim?
In the aftermath of United’s defeat to City, the potential 11-point gap to leaders Chelsea was being pointed out. As it turned out, the surprise loss of two points against Burnley means Thomas Tuchel’s men now have a nine-point lead on United after 11 games.
Yet, while winning the Premier League for the first time since 2013 was an aspiration, the key target this season – as with all the big clubs – is a top-four finish and qualification for next season’s Champions League.
Evidently, the levels required to attain that are not as high. Of United’s current challengers for a top-four spot, West Ham have lost at home to Brentford already this season, Arsenal recently drew at home with Crystal Palace, United beat Tottenham and Everton lost their third game in a row at Wolves on 1 November.
Even with their current problems, United should feel reasonably confident about winning that particular battle and securing Champions League football for the third season in a row for the first time since Ferguson’s exit.
Change at the top
Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward has been responsible for finalising the key decisions at United for over eight years now.
However, in the aftermath of the Super League debacle, it was confirmed he would leave the club by the end of the year.
It is not certain whether that timescale will be met, nor whether Woodward – a close ally of the Glazer family going back to before their controversial takeover in 2005 – may remain in an advisory capacity.
There are competing claims of many others. They include former United keeper Edwin van der Sar, who has drawn positive comments for his work as chief executive of Ajax and was one of the key figures that kept the influential European Clubs’ Association on track in the wake of the mass resignations by the Super League clubs.
But it seems certain managing director Richard Arnold will take Woodward’s senior role.
That doesn’t appear to signal a change in direction for the club – nor that the post-Ferguson template is about to be ripped up.