The exact same result generated completely different views. Wolves have beaten Liverpool and Manchester United 2-1 in the FA Cup at Molineux this season, both times inflicting a second consecutive defeat on a club in the ascendancy. Yet while a ‘disjointed and rattled’ Liverpool ‘wobbled’, ‘stumbled’ and were ‘still without a win this year’ on January 7, the same national newspaper reported fifth-placed United as ‘on course to clinch two of the three legs of that historic and unique Treble’ on March 16.
The point was solidified a few days later. When the simple act of shouting at an under-performing squad is reduced to ‘learning’ lessons from years earlier, the shadow has surely been cast a little too far. If Solskjaer’s every decision and action can be viewed only through the prism of Sir Alex Ferguson, is it possible to prosper in the long term?
There is no question about the short-term success. Solskjaer won 14 of his first 17 matches by following Gary Neville’s three-step United Way For Dummies beginner’s guide to the letter, adhering strictly to the foreword, story body, bibliography and blurb written by Ferguson.
But the honeymoon period might well be over, and the reality of marriage is setting in. Solskjaer deservedly remains the first-choice candidate for a permanent appointment, yet back-to-back defeats cannot simply be ignored.
If he was the perfect antidote to the poison that had infected the club long before his arrival, the next stage of the rehabilitation process was always going to be more difficult. Ferguson’s direct descendant has earned himself time by playing into the hands of a media all too happy to gleefully reminisce about the good old days. “There is only one boss, and that is Sir Alex,” he said earlier this month, and pre- and post-match press conferences have been little more than cheap but incredibly effective and ingenious nostalgia trips.
A Champions League meeting with Barcelona only strengthens the narrative; Solskjaer returning to the Nou Camp 20 years after that night is an irresistible thought.
Even in the midst of the Wolves defeat – his biggest failure thus far – Solskjaer’s only reference point was of that immense success two decades ago: the Treble. At this club more than almost every other, the burden of recent history weighs remarkably heavy in the present.
Liverpool know that conundrum all too well. “You cannot carry it in your backpack every day,” Jurgen Klopp said of the club’s burning desire to relive their dominance of the 1970s and 80s. The German was eager to pay homage to better days while promising to deliver some of his own in the future.
Yet United are now clinging to a vestige of their glorious past like a comfort blanket. Even Zlatan Ibrahimovic has taken a temporary break from comparing himself to wildlife or the literal Jesus Christ to notice.
“Everything that happens is judged by the era of Ferguson,” he said this week. “They are saying if Ferguson was here, this would not happen, Ferguson would not do it like that. Ferguson would do it like this. Everything was Ferguson.
“Ferguson has his place in history at this club but now the club continues. It has to find its own identity and it is difficult.”
After 37 long and arduous years, he finally had a salient point to make. United’s homage to history has helped breathe new life into this campaign, but could also prove to be incredibly suffocating going forward.
Perhaps this will be different. David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho were all determined to steer as far away as possible from the beaten path, but with Ole at the wheel, United are driving directly into the light – Ferguson’s – that both guides and blinds them.
Not that the Norwegian has just left the club on autopilot for three months. His man-management has been almost impeccable and the wins over Tottenham and Paris Saint-Germain in particular showed that Solskjaer can be his own man when he wants and needs to be, devising and enacting wonderful tactical plans to beat a better opponent.
The challenge now is to break out from that mould for good. To attempt to emulate Ferguson is understandable – and indeed sensible – but it is an almost unfathomably high bar to clear for longer than a few weeks. Solskjaer and United need to try and move on both with and without their most legendary manager and mentor.
Ferguson obviously still has a part to play, but as a minor supporting character to Solskjaer’s leading role. Giving them equal billing is threatening to undermine the man in charge.
If that doesn’t change, the driving force behind some of the club’s greatest achievements as a player might be the perennial passenger on his own managerial journey at Old Trafford. Solskjaer has two months left to prove how good he is at giving directions.