What have Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Alan Partridge got in common?
Both need help constructing a press.
Nobody can say they weren’t warned. This is a Manchester United with absolutely no midfield cohesion. A result like Sunday’s capitulation against Liverpool has been coming. Indeed, it had already arrived, but the 6-1 defeat to a Tottenham managed by José Mourinho, that titan of free-scoring football, in August last year seems weirdly to have been forgotten.
What’s the difference between Russia and Old Trafford?
Ole Gunnar Solskjær still believes in a free press.
Nobody has a clue what they’re supposed to be doing. Virgil van Dijk had the ball at the back. Mason Greenwood, perhaps stung by the implication in much of the coverage of the past week that he is lazy, felt the need to close him down. But at first he was alone. Van Dijk knocked the ball outside him to Andy Robertson. Aaron Wan-Bissaka, reacting late to Greenwood’s movement, went to close him down, but in doing so left Diogo Jota unmarked. Robertson played the ball to Jota who, unmarked, helped it on to Roberto Firmino, by which point it was already too late. With the defence yanked out of shape it took just two passes to work a straightforward shooting opportunity for Naby Keïta and United were 1-0 down.
What have Ole Gunnar Solskjær and an over-confident student who’s just bought his first iron got in common?
Both are terrible at pressing.
This is no longer about individuals. It’s not about whether Greenwood or Wan-Bissaka should or should not have gone to close down Robertson, it’s that there had apparently been no planning for that eventuality. He didn’t know whether to go or not, and when he did go, nobody else reacted. That’s not pressing any more than a spaniel chasing a ball in a park is pressing. And that comes back to the manager. But nobody should think Solskjær is the only thing wrong at United. That he is not a manager at the same level, or anywhere close to the same level, as Jürgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel is obvious and always has been, but he has not been helped by those above him.
Last season United would have sat deep against a side like Liverpool. They would have packed the midfield and looked to strike on the break. But this season they cannot do that because of Cristiano Ronaldo. He has to play, because he is Cristiano Ronaldo. He offers almost nothing in the defensive phase because he is Cristiano Ronaldo. He is not mobile enough to play as Solskjær often previously had his forwards play against high-level opposition in a sort of 4-4-2 diamond with two wide strikers because he is 36. His goals, as they did against Atalanta last Wednesday, may bring United results, but he is like some gorgeous wallpaper from an Edgar Allan Poe short story, hiding the cracks while simultaneously causing the wall to crumble.
And now he’s not just a tactical problem but a personnel issue. This is a player who in the past three years has cost Max Allegri, Maurizio Sarri and Andrea Pirlo their jobs. Any team he plays for inevitably becomes FC Ronaldo and, whatever that may do for shirt sales and social media profile, that is not conducive to playing the sort of fluent integrated football that wins trophies.
The dismissive wafts of the hand at every goal conceded suggest he is chafing against Solskjær. On another day, he might have been sent off for the way he swiped at Curtis Jones then wildly kicked the ball into him as he lay on the ground. That was, perhaps, the most disturbing feature on Sunday: Paul Pogba was sent off, but Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes and Harry Maguire all could have been. Discipline was lost entirely.
In fact, the ability to play football was lost entirely. The weirdest thing of all was that Liverpool didn’t even play especially well – although it’s probably not easy to be at your best against an opponent self-destructing wildly. United just capitulated, brains scrambled. Simple passes were given away, defensive structure disintegrated: this was a team that for a long periods just forgot how to play football and that was, frankly, lucky Liverpool eased off for the final half hour.
So what comes next? For three years, United have been driven by the logic of the theme park but at some point, very soon, even the nostalgists must surely accept that there is need for a change of leadership. After all, however much the punters may love Mickey Mouse, nobody expects him to run Disneyland.
This is where the true nature of the club will be revealed. Are they even about winning football matches and trophies any more? Or has the business of content production taken over? Because whoever takes over, whenever that transfer of power happens – and there was no sign before Sunday it was imminent – the new manager will have to deal with the problem of Ronaldo. Perhaps there is a way he can be used as a weapon to devastate lesser sides, or as a last-throw-of-the-dice substitute in bigger games, but he has no place as a guaranteed starter against high-class opponents.
But can Manchester United heritage industries face the prospect of losing two of its biggest stars?
What have Stanley Baldwin and Ole Gunnar Solskjær got in common?
Both were broken by their inability to control the press.