“I don’t want to leave,” said Ole Gunnar Solskjaer last week when he was asked about his long-term Manchester United prospects, and it seems more likely with each passing day that he will not be ushered through the exit door.
On Solskjaer’s watch, the Red Devils have won five consecutive matches, with the caretaker boss not only equalling Sir Matt Busby’s record run to start a United reign, but also becoming the first top-flight manager since 1888 to win his first five games in charge by a margin of at least two goals. United are now Europe’s in-form team.
As well as matches, Solskjaer is winning hearts and minds and for someone as well versed in United’s traditions as the former striker, it is a tap-in. Being someone other than Jose Mourinho was a good start for the man on loan from Molde, but Solskjaer has charmed everyone at Old Trafford with his sunny disposition and a very simple, very United approach: attack, attack, attack.
Solskjaer has the endorsement of Sir Alex Ferguson, who was at Carrington last week to reinforce his former striker’s message to the current squad. The players were apparently told that they can make United great again and that the greatest manager in the club’s history believes in them.
So it is little wonder that the players are high on life under Solskjaer right now. After ridding themselves of their tyrannical, ultra-conservative former manager, the under-achieving stars have been given the ticket to the chocolate factory. According to The Mirror, Solskjaer’s ‘inclusive man-management approach’ and his willingness to let United’s attackers ‘play with freedom and express themselves, without being burdened by defensive obligations’ have gone down particularly well in the dressing room.
At the moment, it sounds like every day at Carrington is the last day at school. But much like playing board games and watching movies in the classroom probably isn’t a sustainable path to success, nor is giving these players carte blanche. Perhaps we will see on Sunday at Tottenham that the likes of Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial will voluntarily track back for a manager less likely to scold them publicly for not doing so but, as Mourinho or anyone with eyes has identified, this United defence needs protection, especially against more potent opposition than Reading, Huddersfield or Newcastle.
These have been satisfying victories during the tamest of schedules for United but greater tests are around the corner – ones the players must pass. Gone is their scapegoat – a third for some – and should they fail to maintain against Spurs, Arsenal, PSG and Liverpool the standards they have set against Bournemouth and Cardiff, then for the first time in a long time, it will not be the manager in the firing line.
Despite the players being caught in the crossfire between United supporters and Mourinho, the squad suffered no losses and only the odd graze. But any lingering feeling of invincibility among the current euphoria must be suppressed because the next time these Red Devils fall short, the barrage will be concentrated firmly on the pitch rather than the dug-out.
Nor can Ed Woodward rest on his laurels. If – when the novelty has diminished – the players continue to thrive under Solskjaer’s laissez-faire leadership, Woodward’s recruitment hunt for a new manager becomes a lot more straightforward, especially if Mauricio Pochettino opts to stay at Spurs, or he chooses the basket case in Madrid rather than Manchester.
But United’s problems go way beyond the manager. Solskjaer, or anyone else, is almost destined to fail at Old Trafford under the club’s current structure.
— Training Ground Guru (@ground_guru) December 17, 2018
United’s refusal to back Mourinho in the summer in the immediate window after handing him a fat new contract highlighted the lack of a coherent plan or clear leadership at Old Trafford. With Woodward, a chartered accountant, making football decisions over Mourinho, no one can be surprised at the mess United find themselves in.
The need for a sporting director is greater at United than anywhere else – not just because most of their rivals have long since sussed that structure precedes success. Woodward and the Glazer family either presumed they could bypass the first stop on the way to the second, or they were never really all that fussed about the destination, as long as the profits continued to grow. If the former is to blame for United’s current malaise – and fans need to hope it is – then an overhaul above the coaching staff is the first step to remedying their ills.
There is no doubt that Solskjaer has lifted everyone at Old Trafford and he deserves credit for how shrewdly he has begun his pitch for the full-time job. But in no way can United afford for Woodward – or the players – to think that the caretaker boss has taken the heat off any of them.