Manchester United are a club hooked on instant highs and short-term fixes, where memories are short and judgments are definitive, right up until the moment they aren’t. New episodes arrive twice a week. Redemption is – usually – only ever 90 minutes away.
United’s 4-1 defeat at Watford on Saturday, proved a watershed moment for Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s management, the final straw – except the humiliation against Manchester City was supposedly the final straw. So too the 5-0 trouncing at home to Liverpool. Or the time they conceded a goal to Istanbul Basaksehir without a single defender in their own half.
Even so, the dead energy to United at this particular moment seems vaguely new and vaguely familiar all at once. The glumness and the vacant stares are redolent of the Louis van Gaal end-days; the half-paced running and basic lack of sacrifice a throwback to the José Mourinho years. If United in their worst moments under Solskjær have occasionally looked like a team running around with no idea what it was doing, then it was at least marginally preferable to them not running around at all.
Afterwards Solskjær was asked where things were going wrong. Honestly, you may as well have asked him to explain the internal combustion engine. “That’s human beings,” he said in response to a question about why so many garlanded footballers were playing so drastically within themselves, and from his perspective it probably is that bafflingly simple. Humans. They play football. Sometimes they win. Sometimes they lose. Either way, enjoy it.”
One actually felt for him. It’s hardly Solskjær’s fault he was handed a job for which he was so patently ill-equipped, and with this in mind it’s probably fair to say he exceeded expectations. He may not have the personality or the CV to mould a dressing room in his image, the tactical nuance required to coach title-winning sides. But for three years he at least kept the show on the road, reached a European final, made some memories. Nobody really saw that coming.
And yet by a curious quirk of fate it is probably Solskjær’s lack of intrinsic ability that had kept him in the job this long. It is often said that managers can weather defeats but not being turned into a punchline. Solskjær, by contrast, was appointed as a punchline, the Norwegian Ted Lasso, a fun sketch taken just a little too far. And so when things started going wrong the only real option was to double down on the joke, spin it out, suspend our disbelief even longer. To do anything else would be like Jason Sudeikis breaking the fourth wall and earnestly admitting to the audience that yes, the whole thing was actually fictional from the start.
As for the football itself, United were dysfunctional before Solskjaer arrived and will probably continue to be dysfunctional after he has gone. At times one could glimpse the bones of something promising in there: a second-placed league finish, big European scalps, a home-grown core with a sturdy defence and an exciting forward line (although not always at the same time). And so, in retrospect, the decision to go all-in on Jadon Sancho and Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer rather than strengthening in midfield or at full-back may go down as one of those crossroads moments in the club’s modern history: the point at which they were on the verge of building a new house, but instead decided to blow it up for the YouTube numbers.
Indeed, perhaps the biggest mistake United could make at this point was to conclude that Solskjær is the root of their current problems. The rot goes far deeper: an imbalanced squad of many egos but few leaders, where players are signed on their individual merits and play largely the same way. The need for some sort of grand idea or defining identity can occasionally be overplayed a little – what is Chelsea’s defining identity over the last decade, for example? But at a bare minimum you need a proper structure, applicable footballing expertise at boardroom level, a coach with more tools in his locker than “just believe in yourselves”.
United are too big and too rich to keep making the same mistakes indefinitely. Wealth and power are like an infinite supply of lottery tickets; one day, eventually, you’ll nail it. It was Solskjær’s eternal ambition to be the man holding the ticket when that day came. Alas, his luckhas finally run out.