Manchester United must come down from the comeback clouds

Tim Ellis
Manchester United players

Team spirit has become a problem for Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the nature of defeat to Liverpool felt like the end.


There was an iconic picture called Lunch Atop A Skyscraper that adorned Sir Alex Ferguson’s Carrington office. It depicted 11 construction workers sitting on an exposed steel girder overlooking New York City during the construction of the Rockefeller Centre in the 1930s. Health and safety would go ape now at this laissez-faire attitude to break time. However, this was the bonding in extremis that Fergie saw as the true makings of a team: “I say, that’s team spirit when you give your leg for someone. No-one at this club wins anything without their teammates.”

So what to make of the Manchester United team spirit of 2021? Fergie was pictured in the crowd on Sunday at Old Trafford just moments after Mo Salah had completed his hat-trick. You can bet your bottom New York dollar he wasn’t saying: “Football, bloody hell.” A coarser version of those last two words were being uttered by Kenny Dalglish, whose smile lit up the whole of a miserable Manchester.

Suffice it to say, no red shirt was giving their leg for anybody. In the case of Paul Pogba, it was more like trying to take the leg off their opponents. There was going to be no flying by the seat of your pants on this occasion, no adrenaline-fuelled comeback to fill up the punch drunk cup and keep practical issues of improvement away for a few more days.

This felt like the end. Something had to change. Beforehand, there was always an excuse not to press the red button.

United are a team that vacillate wildly between dormant and dynamic with no filter. Atalanta and Villarreal were way ahead on points at half-time but there was always wriggle room for a thrilling denouement in the Theatre of Dreams. Liverpool had their opponents in a chokehold from which they could not break free. Not even Conor McGregor could talk himself out of this one. Continually getting out of jail is not fun anymore.

The problem on Sunday was that there was absolutely nothing left to fight for at half-time. What is that thing called pride if it doesn’t give you points? Yes. It had stooped that low. They were beyond saving themselves. Multiple members of the celebrity cabal had downed their tools and started to indulge their frustrations. Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes and Pogba were those very babies and egos that Gary Neville alluded to. And they were breaking team rules on the pitch. There must be consequences.

As Sir Alex said: “If you give in once, you’ll give in twice.” United gave in once, twice and thrice. Bryan Robson, who broke brick walls and bones to fight for the cause, claimed that the players didn’t care. While Klopp spoke of activating the fans in his job interview with John Henry, Solskjaer has the problem of engaging his players while sitting comfortably on his big brother chair. It’s an unfortunate look that he can’t quite pull off.

The emotional rollercoaster comeback is what started Solskjaer’s gig but now that particular bubble is burst, United need to bring in a more sustainable version of COP26 to the Carrington table. The case for Solskjaer’s constructive dismissal does not need any more legal submissions. If we are to look at the very myopic short-term, there is much to play for. A smooth passage to the Champions League knockout phase is paramount, but the next two games in that competition are away to those teams who should have prevailed at Old Trafford. Whatever happens, it is difficult to see an emollient for the manager’s sores. The constant shifting of the tectonic plates has now resulted in full open season on Ole. Paul Scholes’ miserabilism might have more of a field day than Scrooge at Christmas.

So what can Solskjaer rely on “going forward” in this small window? First things first. It is with some ironic amusement that Saturday sees a visit to Tottenham, almost 20 years since the Red Devils were in a similarly parlous state early on in the 2001/02 season. Back in that particular time vortex, goals were being conceded at an alarming rate every game and United found themselves three down at half-time. There was no hairdryer treatment but just deadly silence for 15 minutes. Ferguson eventually told them to get the first goal and kick on. That’s what you call authority.

A 5-3 win will not cut the ice this time. It cannot continue. Team spirit is in a splint that can’t really come off until United are truly braced for change. Rumbling discontent trumps a morale-boosting win every time.