“To be top four, that’s not the dream. We’re Man United, you should always aim to win the league.”
That was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in his pre-match press conference for the visit of Burnley last January. Pretty much exactly a year later, ahead of the same clash, the Manchester United boss was content not to be have been humped by the team that will win the league.
“For me, we lost to Liverpool, a team that you all say are fantastic, and we’ve been in the game until the last kick. And, for me, that’s strides forward.”
For everyone else, Ole, it’s a hopeless misjudgement of the game and, more importantly, the attitude expected of any manager at Old Trafford. United fans don’t want delusion – most understand their current status – but nor should they swallow being outclassed as a tangible form of progress.
You could argue against the smidgen of consolation that United pushed Liverpool. They had two real opportunities to score at Anfield, by which time Liverpool should have put their visitors to bed and tucked them in with a story, milk and a cookie, such was their dominance and wastefulness. By the time the Reds’ second goal arrived, indeed with the last kick, it was around an hour overdue. Even then the scoreline did not reflect the pattern of the game.
Relief was probably one of the more prevailing post-match emotions among United fans who trudged pessimistically from Anfield, but the fact Solskjaer shared that sentiment will jar among supporters trying their damnedest not to condemn a United icon.
That United icon has spent much of his first year back at Old Trafford building up expectations, while simultaneously trying to dampen them. Solskjaer has flip-flopped between notable wins and nadir defeats, altering his tone as he goes. It’s a reactionary approach which prompts no confidence in the plan United claim to have.
From ‘always aiming to win the league’ at the start of 2019 to four months later proclaiming that it would be ‘miraculous’ if United challenged for the title in 2020, Solskjaer then set United the target of closing the gap on last term’s pacesetters. A £150million pre-season spend on three new signings saw Solskjaer revisit his initial bullishness – “We’ve got to aim for further up than fourth, we’ve got to, that’s just being at Manchester United” – which evaporated further with each underwhelming result. And now he’s back to accentuating the positives which few outside the boardroom can see.
“I’d rather be an optimist and be wrong than a pessimist and be right,” Solskjaer also said in the summer, since when he has dabbled with both extremes. There is a middle ground to be found in realism and perhaps that is where Solskjaer tried to position himself on Tuesday morning by talking about pushing Liverpool to the final kick. But to proclaim that defeat as evidence of United taking ‘strides forward’ was, once again, tone deaf. It was Moyes-esque.
As for “we aspire to play like City”, the most ill-advised thing Moyes could say. Providing the nails and hammer for his own coffin.
— Daniel Storey (@danielstorey85) March 25, 2014
“One of my hobbies now is to watch press conferences,” Sir Alex Ferguson said after retirement; let’s hope for the sake of his health that he did not watch Solskjaer on Tuesday. “For a manager, no matter the result, at a press conference you need to come out as the winner,” Ferguson added in 2015. “You can kill yourself in a press conference.”
Solskjaer has not committed suicide for the cameras but shooting himself in the foot was another painful act of self-harm. As was declaring now – with nine days to go in the transfer window and United desperately short – “not the time to speak about recruitment”. Just like after a mass shooting isn’t the time to discuss gun control. Thoughts and prayers, indeed.
We can only presume these were accidental discharges, regrettable off-the-cuff remarks and not the messages he wanted to convey, even if he wasn’t prompted by a leading question. Regardless, it highlighted another failing of a manager running out of credits.
Solskjaer was, in fact, responding to a query about his reaction to Gary Neville’s criticism of the ‘unforgivable’ Ed Woodward. “My experience with the players we’ve brought in has been good,” he went on to say, which is fair. United’s new signings have been among their better players this season, but that does not atone for five years of hopeless mis-management on Woodward’s part. Nor does it excuse the fact that Solskjaer was short-changed with only three new recruits, just as looks likely again this month while United refuse to pay for the targets they have identified.
Solskjaer can hardly complain. Regardless of his credentials, Woodward still does the hiring and firing and many would have squeezed the trigger in Solskjaer’s direction by now. The manager is the vice-chairman’s shield and while he continues to accentuate the positives and, if need be, invent them, then Solskjaer will remain in the position he is barely qualified for. For as long as that status quo remains, the gap to Liverpool – the chasm Solskjaer targeted that is already 30 points with more than a third of the season to play – will continue to grow.
We can’t quite believe we’re writing this, but the suits have convinced us to make a YouTube show. Sarah and Dan are on it you should probably watch it, even if just to see their faces. Subscribe here.