Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has finally gone from Old Trafford, but Man Utd need a bigger cultural about turn than sacking one manager could ever achieve.
In a sense, you can see the disconnect in the slightly protracted nature of the announcement itself. Manchester United’s directors had a busy Saturday evening. Following their 4-1 at shellacking at Watford, they locked themselves away for a lengthy conversation with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and eventually reached a conclusion that they could have reached several weeks ago, that this particular experiment had run its course and that it’s time to alter the direction of this floundering football club. Except even in this moment of long-overdue moment of collective lucidity came a pause. The New York Stock Exchange needs time to prepare for such an announcement, so nothing could be formalised until the following morning. That, as ever, is the value that needs to be protected.
Meanwhile, the length and breadth of England and beyond, thesauruses were being thumbed in the pursuit of new adjectives to sum up another performance which seems to have taken the club off in the pursuit of new depths to plumb. Given the run of fixtures they’ve got coming up, this was supposed to be warm-up act, a chance to show that the international break may have had some positive impact on the players and that Man Utd are capable of some form of cohesion on the pitch if allowed a little time to work on it. Instead, what we witnessed was more of the same. An exercise in lessons not having been learned. The final point at which the scales now finally seem to have fallen from the eyes of the last few hold-outs. Whatever it is that Manchester United in 2021 are supposed to be, this – *gestures at the Vicarage Road pitch between 3.00pm and 4.50pm on the 20th November* – was surely not supposed to be it.
And in delaying the decision after every previous abject performance, all the Glazers have done is ultimately make a rod for their own back. When Spurs found that their Nuno Espirito Santo experiment wasn’t working, they acted more swiftly than most Spurs supporters are used to and replaced him with Antonio Conte. It was swift and decisive, and it took a top level coach who had evidently been waiting on a call from Old Trafford out of the equation. Conte and Spurs may or may not work out, but they’ve at least given themselves the opportunity to find out. As for Manchester United, well, it doesn’t say very much for their corporate structure when you’re getting beaten to the punch by Tottenham Hotspur, a club who took 72 days to make the wrong danger over Santo.
In missing out on Conte, apparently thanks to their own dithering, Man Utd have left themselves a thankless task in replacing Solskjaer. There’s talk that they’re prepared to shower Zinedine Zidane with money to get him to join, and in some respects this makes perfect sense. He’s a Big Name, whose appointment will ‘send out a signal’, and he’ll probably bump that share price up by a few points. But he’s got no Premier League experience whatsoever and doesn’t speak English. He was successful at Real Madrid, but this wouldn’t necessarily translate to success at Old Trafford.
Other names to have been mentioned include Mauricio Pochettino, who’s contracted to PSG until the summer of 2023 and will be unlikely to be released by them unless they consider him surplus to their requirements, Julen Lopetegui, who’s probably best known for getting sacked by Spain a couple of days before they were due to kick off in the 2018 World Cup over his dalliance with Real Madrid, only for that to fall flat and Lopetegui to find himself cast onto their scrap heap barely four months later, and Brendan Rodgers, whose Leicester City team are currently hovering on the event horizon between ‘slump’ and ‘freefall’ and who is, of course, a former Liverpool manager. It is notable, the extent to which Liverpool supporters are not volubly angry at the possibility of this happening.
In the meantime, there is another comfort blanket to be clutched at in the caretaker appointment of Michael Carrick. Yet another Man Utd ‘legend’ with so much club in his DNA that there’s scarcely room for anything else. Would it be completely unsurprising to see him pick up a handful of decent results from his first few matches, and for the entire cycle to begin again? Probably not. And what chance does he have anyway, from a team which, according to its own goalkeeper, ‘doesn’t know what to do with the ball’? How much of a write-off are the directors prepared for this season to be? And if Carrick does arrest the current slump, what happens with the next permanent manager? Will there not be a clamour for people with United ‘in their DNA’ to keep pushing on?
Meanwhile, Ed Woodward remains in situ, six months after his resignation was announced with so many asterisks attached that they’ve come to form a blizzard through which we now can’t see whether he’ll stay or not. The coaching staff is unlikely to change very much until a new permanent appointment is made. The players are the same players, and goodness only knows how they react to what comes next. And all of this demonstrates the contradiction at the heart of Manchester United at the moment. Their problems on the pitch have been related to Solskjaer’s coaching and tactics, of that there can be little doubt, but they also run much deeper than him alone. And the result of all of this is that yes, Manchester United are now going to embark on another chapter. But unfortunately, no-one has much idea of what this next chapter will even look like; not even those who have been writing the book.