A brief gaze towards the skies above cut short by the bitter realisation that not even the heavens will provide a reprieve from the unfolding humiliation. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reaction to Dennis’ stoppage-time finish at Vicarage Road, the fourth time the Hornets found the back of David De Gea’s net, was a defining image of the bleakness that had become characteristic of his management at Manchester United.
The season’s progression gave birth to a growing sense that irrespective of the result of any given fixture — a late Ronaldo equalizer in Bergamo, a five-goal demolition in Liverpool, a suffocating loss in Manchester — United would always be less than the sum of their expensively assembled parts.
When he arrived at the club, Solskjaer’s remit was to restore comradery and cohesion in the fractured dressing room and divided fan base that Jose Mourinho left in his wake. And that he did. Yet as the demands of his role continued to expand, the Norwegian never truly convinced in his capacity to meet them. Periods of good form, of potential signs of growth in his coaching, were always met with sustained runs of abysmal performances. Inconsistency was the most consistent feature of Solskjaer’s tenure.
His tactical shortcomings were the primary culprit behind that. Solskjaer’s predilection for a fast, counter-attacking approach was never supplanted by an alternative plan for games where United had to control possession. Bruno Fernandes’ arrival gave him a one-man conductor for the team’s attack, but it could only paper over the cracks in United’s system rather than resolve them.
United have never had the passing networks in possession that characterize the other best teams in Europe, meaning they were susceptible to both teams who pressed them high to disrupt their playing out from the back and teams who sat off and denied them space in behind. The Europa League final last season was an example of the latter, the Liverpool trouncing an example of the former, and both are accompanied by a swath of similar performances that have been present throughout Solskjaer’s tutelage.
Defensively, United seemed to be a solid unit in Solskjaer’s first season in charge. As time has wore on, though, his lack of detailed structure has once again become evident. United’s forwards are rarely in the correct position to cut off the opposition’s passing lanes, giving them direct access to the midfielders behind them.
Fred and Scott McTominay have been highly criticized as a midfield pairing under Solskjaer, and their limitations are clear. But the job of a coach is to devise a tactical setup that makes his players’ jobs easier, not harder. Solskjaer’s system accentuated his midfield’s deficiencies rather than mitigating them, and United’s defensive unit has suffered as a result.
Even the positives that he brought to the role quickly evaporated as expectations of his team escalated. Solskjaer was perhaps the first coach of the post-Ferguson era to give the club a clear direction in the transfer market: targeting young players who could form a talented core who could develop together. Smart exceptions to this policy were made — Edinson Cavani proved to be an invaluable asset to the squad — but until the past window, Solskjaer’s acquisitions were always about the long-term.
In signing Raphael Varane and more pertinently Cristiano Ronaldo, though, the Norwegian deferred to the standard Glazer policy of purchasing marquee stars irrespective of how they complemented the current squad. The Portuguese forward’s arrival has almost single-handedly dislodged Paul Pogba from his preferred position, slashed Mason Greenwood’s playing time, and made United’s pressing even worse than before. His signing is emblematic of how Solskjaer, perhaps in the pursuit of trophies to solidify his position, ditched the strategic planning that was once his biggest virtue as Manchester United coach.
So Solskjaer’s exit from the club is far from surprising. What is disheartening for Man United fans is that the next steps for the club are on unsure footing. The club’s new structure is full of individuals just like Solskjaer — proven in other roles at Manchester United, but inexperienced in their current occupations. A suitable candidate for the managerial role is not forthcoming, meaning United have to make do with an interim for the rest of the campaign — a campaign where they were meant to be challenging for the league title.
Even if fans get a coach to their liking, Erik Ten Hag or Mauricio Pochettino for instance, it’s unclear whether the current club structure will be capable of supporting them. United have never appointed a coach at the cutting edge of modern tactics, and with that comes the imperative to acquire the right type of player to make a tactical system work.
The current squad can do much better than their current standing, but they wouldn’t immediately acclimatize to a more modern style of play — the forward line isn’t suited to a high press, the midfield isn’t technically capable of a slower possession-game.
Plenty of questions loom large over Manchester United, and the recent past suggests there will be few if any satisfactory answers. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is gone, and understandably so, but it still leaves the club trapped in their post-Ferguson malaise.