So, what next? Ole Gunnar Solskjær has gone, and with him perhaps Manchester United’s most visible problem, but a sentimental appointment wasn’t the only issue holding the club back. United is institutionally dysfunctional and it will take more than a change of personnel in the dugout to change that.
Solskjær was a fine appointment as caretaker, perhaps the last good decision Ed Woodward made as United CEO. The return of a popular club legend, the sunshine man whose rays of decency could dispel the acrimony of the latter days of José Mourinho’s reign, made sense. The problem was that rather than waiting until his short-term contract expired, Woodward gave him the job on a permanent basis.
Even by the end of that season, as United won only two of their final 12 games, it was apparent that a mistake had been made. Solskjær’s teams lacked the sophisticated organisation that differentiates the very best from the rest. The board could have made an assessment with the benefit of as much evidence as possible; instead they allowed themselves to be carried by emotion.
That lack of organisation was never resolved. Solskjær could set up a team to defend deep and strike on the break, which brought a series of notable results in big games, but they struggled to break down well-organised defences. Of course, when you have a squad as loaded with talent as United’s, you will score goals most of the time, but the draw at West Brom, the home to defeat by Sheffield United, and perhaps most especially the draw against Villarreal in the Europa League final were indictments.
This season, the flaw was compounded by the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo, another nostalgia-driven investment, another reminder that United as a club see themselves as being less about the production of effective football than saleable content. This is a squad put together less for utility than celebrity.
Suddenly it was no longer possible to sit deep and counter because there was a chugging goal-machine who had to be selected up front. With a great midfield, as Real Madrid showed with Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, it is (just about) possible to compensate for Ronaldo and his unwillingness or inability to press. Scott McTominay, Fred and Nemanja Matic do not constitute a great midfield.
The inertia of the United board, their hope that everything would somehow come good, that a functioning team could somehow be constructed out of some famous people and some nineties memes, means they have missed out on the best available candidate, Antonio Conte going the way of Thomas Tuchel and Mauricio Pochettino (when he joined Paris Saint-Germain). United’s statement said they will appoint an interim manager until the end of the season. But then who? Zinedine Zidane, Pochettino, Brendan Rodgers, Julen Lopetegui? Would Laurent Blanc be up for it? Could Ralf Rangnick be persuaded to leave Lokomotiv Moscow and take over as sporting director?
And that is probably the biggest issue. The United board might not be so susceptible to each passing tide if there were somebody there who grasped modern football. The most damaging aspect of the Solskjær appointment was probably that it meant plans for a high-profile sporting director were shelved. John Murtough was appointed as football director in March but his visible impact has been minimal. With a figure who could guide the overall outlook there may be a coherence to signings, rather than a series of half-baked half-theories vaguely pursued before the allure of nostalgia and glamour takes over again.
This is a squad that has been expensively assembled, but it lacks coherence and whoever is appointed will have to face that first of all – and that means sales as well as signings. Why was Paul Pogba not offloaded when he might have generated a fee? It’s not necessarily a criticism of them as players, but why are Donny van de Beek, Eric Bailly, Juan Mata, Alex Telles and Diogo Dalot at the club if there was no place for them in Solskjær’s plans? But the biggest problem is Ronaldo.
It’s all very well him scoring late goals to salvage games against the likes of Villarreal and Atalanta, but why do those games need salvaging? Zidane left Real Madrid at the end of his final season there, since when Ronaldo has seen off Max Allegri, Maurizio Sarri and Andrea Pirlo before Solskjær: that’s five coaches in three and a half years across three clubs. How can he be fitted into a modern system? The truth is that, for all his goals, he probably can’t. While he remains at the club, whoever the manager is will be compensating for his presence and that mitigates against an integrated philosophy moving forward.
His status dwarfs all else and that leads to a compunction, not to use him as an impact sub or only in matches in which United are likely to dominate the ball, but to play him in the majority of games. And the effect of that ripples out, reducing opportunities for Jadon Sancho (a £73m signing this summer who has seemingly been sacrificed on the altar of Ronaldo), Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Edinson Cavani.
What United need, fairly obviously, is a coherent structure. They need to build a system that presses, that allows the team to function as a unit, both going forwards and backwards. But achieving that with this squad, with a board forever adding new gaudy accoutrements, is far from straightforward.
And while the present situation is clearly filtered through a modern lens, the sense of frustration, of stars never quite making a constellation, has been, beyond the Busby and Ferguson eras, fairly standard at Old Trafford since the second world war. Only three managers have won the league with United. Without major changes throughout the club, it may be a long time before there’s a fourth.