Almost exactly a year ago this week, I shook hands on a bet with a friend who was convinced that Manchester United Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would be fired by the end of the month. Personally I was hoping our manager would at least make it to Christmas at that point.
Fast forward a year, and the conversation has not changed much. Solskjaer’s three-year reign at United has been a constant back and forth between glimpses of potential brilliance interspersed with, frankly, absolute 90-minute disasters. (Our most recent 0-5 loss to Liverpool springs to mind.) Yet, United currently sit at fifth in the Premier League table only three points off third place Manchester City, is top of their Champions League group, and only recently ended their 29-game unbeaten run away from home, an English league record. So what is happening with Solskjaer and his team?
In domestic competition, United entered the 2021-22 Premier League season in the conversation as potential title contenders. This is a discussion in which the United name rarely appears anymore, sitting eight points off first place with team performances that, on average, do not rise to the level of football on display from Chelsea, Liverpool, and City this season. Often conceding first in games, United have come from behind to win an impressive nineteen games under Solkjaer’s tenure. But while a last minute comeback is always exciting, in the interest of chasing silverware, it would be nice to see our back line keep a clean sheet with a little more consistency.
To give credit to Solskjaer, United enjoyed an impressive Europa League run last season, making it to the final before losing a painful penalty shootout to the Spanish team Villareal. The shootout set a record for most number of penalty kicks in a UEFA competition, ending after United goalkeeper, David de Gea, missed the 22nd penalty of the night. United’s start to their 2021 Champions League campaign, however, has been shaky, losing their opening game to the Swiss Young Boys (a team I could not place on a map before we played them). United also fell behind on the scoreboard to Atalanta, a Seria A fifth place team, both when playing them home and away before coming back in the last minutes of each game to win and tie. Thankfully, United beat Villareal in their first meeting since the previous year’s Europa League final in a satisfying taste of revenge (although a last second 95th minute goal was required). With two round-robin games left to play, we are currently top of our Champion League group.
This inconsistency from Solskjaer’s side is perhaps best encapsulated by United’s Premier League results from the past few weeks, which saw us lose 5-0 to Liverpool in a humiliating performance at Old Trafford, only to turn around and post an impressive 3-0 win against a good Tottenham side the following weekend. In a team that is bursting with world class players, Solskjaer seems unable to come up with the right formation and style of play to best capitalize on the talent at his disposal.
On the topic of personnel, at the center of attention is, of course, the recent arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo. With nine goals in eleven appearances across all competitions, Ronaldo has snatched several dramatic last minute victories for United since his return; his goal scoring ability is unquestionable. His inclusion in the starting lineup, however, has caused other issues. Given the abundance of attacking talent at United — Rashford, Greenwood, Cavani, Sancho (Martial no longer even gets a look in) — Ronaldo’s arrival means more minutes on the bench for others.
Additionally, at 36 years old, Ronaldo simply does not have the ability to high press for 90 minutes. He employs a playing style that conserves his energy for bursts of speed into the box, pressing little and often dropping deeper to receive balls to feet from midfield. At the same time Solskjaer is struggling to settle on a dependable defensive pairing in the midfield, currently alternating between a Fred-McTominay or Pogba-Matić partnership. This unfortunate combination of a weak, individualistic pressing style (there often appears to be little tactical cohesion between our strikers) and an easy to pick apart midfield has been a constant issue for United this season.
Whilst fans’ public clamoring for Solskjaer’s replacement rises and ebbs with the weekly emotional rollercoaster that comes with supporting United at the moment, the manager appears to retain firm support from the club’s board. I am not personally a fan of the rotating door style of hiring and firing that characterises a manager position at any elite European football club, but given the lack of team cohesion, identity, and playing style at United, I would not be opposed to a Solskjaer departure.