Ole Gunnar Solskjaer remains an immensely popular figure among the Manchester United fan-base and quite rightly so considering all the goals and unforgettable moments he has given them as a player.
As a floundering manager, however, the Norwegian’s firmly affixed place in club folklore is quickly becoming a serious problem. It’s a problem that goes far beyond the usual awkwardness that occurs whenever a club legend steps into the managerial hot-seat and proves himself to be fairly bad at it.
To offer an example of how this conflict of interests – from a fan’s perspective – typically plays out, let us recall Alan Shearer’s temporary spell in charge at Newcastle a decade ago where the all-round deity of the north-east was pretty clueless in the dug-out. As their team haemorrhaged points each and every week the Geordie faithful suppressed their criticism and quietly hoped the board would soon see sense, which they did, deciding to appoint Chris Hughton at the season’s end on a permanent basis.
On Shearer’s departure fans studiously hid their delight and were instead charitable about his efforts, acknowledging what he was up against, while the board too were magnanimous and respectful. As for Shearer he was probably mightily relieved to depart with his legendary status still intact.
That’s what is supposed to happen when a club hero takes on the managerial reins and it all goes pear-shaped only with Solskjaer we are far past that point. That can no longer happen.
It can no longer happen because of the unique dynamic at Old Trafford that has United’s owners and the board rigidly upheld as villains; the bad guys of the piece.
Again, this is rightly so. In the last 15 years, the Glazers have taken £1.5bn out of the club with an ownership model that frankly appals. In his role as CEO meanwhile, Ed Woodward boasts of United’s social media presence and promises all manner of exciting signings but so often falls woefully short.
All of which should mean in a rational world that the Glazers and Woodward receive the baulk of the flak for United falling far behind their traditional rivals while fans publicly call for a managerial upgrade. After all, Solskjaer’s win percentage since taking on the mantle is an uninspiring 54.3%, a poorer return than his predecessor Jose Mourinho managed and only a marginal improvement on the strike rate of Moyes and Van Gaal.
Furthermore, he is a coach who bangs on relentlessly about the club’s identity and DNA which is extremely rich given that after nearly two years at the helm his team have precisely no distinct way of playing. The fans don’t know what their team stands for or what they’re watching and increasingly this is a side that is overly reliant on individual moments carved out by Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial or Bruno Fernandes.
More so, Solskjaer was a sentimental appointment – a fillip to boost morale during a time of crisis – and in no conceivable way does he compare favourably to his coaching peers. If we’re being particularly harsh it’s hard to think of another Premier League club who would happily take him, so what we have here is the bizarre circumstance of a man in control of the biggest club in the world who West Brom or Fulham would turn their nose up at.
Manchester United fans know all this to be true. They may deny it out of a sense of loyalty to a club icon. But they know it to be true.
We don’t however live in a rational world, not anymore. Instead, we reside in a binary Twittersphere where no two things can be simultaneously good and similarly no two things can be bad. We are either leave or remain. We are Messi or Ronaldo.
So what has developed is an ownership and executive structure that takes on the whole of the blame while Solskjaer is spared any condemnation. In fact, it’s worse than that because in this binary world someone has to be right and someone has to be wrong; someone has to be the culprit and someone the victim and so it follows that the reality of the situation – which is that the board are egregious and Solskjaer is utterly inept – gets lost and instead a narrative builds that claims the reason the Norweigan coach is struggling is because of the board.
The poor guy would thrive if it wasn’t for that dastardly board. By depriving him of funds he is being asked to manage with one hand tied behind his back.
It is an erroneous slant that once again came to the fore following United’s meek defeat to Crystal Palace last week. If only Sancho had been purchased and Woodward had got his finger out and bought a decent left-back then the Reds would have surely won that afternoon. Nobody mentioned that Solskjaer had been tactically out-manoeuvred by Roy Hodgson. Nobody mentioned the high line once again in evidence from a defence completely unsuited to it. Nobody mentioned that United, for the umpteenth time, looked disjointed and depleted of confidence.
On a more general note, nobody mentioned either the £228m that Solskjaer has been furnished with in just three windows. Or the billion pounds plus spent in the last seven years to bring in a cornucopia of hugely regarded internationals. Lastly, it is conveniently over-looked that under their present manager United routinely lose to teams where not one single individual from the opposition would get a starting spot at Old Trafford.
In Solskjaer’s defence it can be suggested there is a significant drop-off in quality beyond the first eleven and that is something that needs addressing. But it was the first team that lost to Palace, not the lack of depth in their squad.
With the Norwegian’s limitations insulated it is only going to get much worse before it gets better at United. Oh what an unholy mess they have got themselves into.
Let’s just hope that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer eventually leaves with his legendary status intact.