As Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the Manchester United squad returned to training this week, the message was very much of a fresh start; of drawing a line for the rest of the season. The break did most good.
The England group are more content. Those left behind got some decent work in.
That’s only most of the squad, though. Cristiano Ronaldo’s mood of disgruntlement continued, as his Portugal team conceded a calamitous late goal against Serbia to lose their last group qualifier and an automatic place at the World Cup.
It won’t exactly calm him. Ronaldo has been complaining to former United teammates about how things have been going under Solskjaer and naturally comparing them to the good old days. Some sources put it more bluntly. “He’s just pissed off.” On the other side, Solskjaer himself has been talking to Roy Keane. This is one other reason the Corkman gets so worked up as a pundit, on behalf of his friend.
They could all do with the balm of better results. Given that there is a fair argument Ronaldo has become perhaps the most powerful football figure at the club, he could similarly do with the endorphin rush of a few easy goals.
It is why the arrival of one of the Premier League’s more forgiving fixtures, away to Claudio Ranieri’s Watford, might be good timing. Then again, so much of Solskjaer’s tenure – right down to when and how Ronaldo was signed – is an illustration of the importance of timing in football.
That is mostly because the United board pretty much know this has run its course. If the right manager was available, they would probably have moved. But that sums up the problem. The right manager – including some of those they would want now – was available at several different points over Solskjaer’s tenure. His three years in the job have overlapped with periods when Thomas Tuchel, Mauricio Pochettino, Julian Nagelsmann and Antonio Conte were either out of work or changing jobs.
It should be acknowledged United were almost completely 100 per cent committed to Solskjaer throughout that period. The only time the hierarchy came anywhere close to considering something else was in October 2020, after they lost 6-1 to Tottenham Hotspur and Pochettino sat out of work but was so prominent in the background. United sources insist there was no official contact with the Argentine. Either way, if the situation was the same now, it feels likely they would have acted.
That alone points to the lack of decisiveness and football expertise at board level. Compare that to one of the clubs that have outstripped them over the last few years, like Liverpool. Brendan Rodgers was still doing a broadly acceptable job in October 2015 but the executive abruptly replaced him because they knew Jurgen Klopp was available and that it was in the best interests of the club to make the decision.
They also knew what most in football have long realised: the price of indecision. It helps explain the series of managerial sackings in the last two weeks. “That’s the trouble with football,” one well-placed source who works at the top of the game says. “If you delay, you lose options, and four can become two, or even none.”
That is the situation in which United now find themselves, paralysed by indecision. Most of what has been circulated in the last few weeks remains true. Solskjaer is mostly still in a job because they don’t have a viable replacement. Ed Woodward is said to be “enchanted” by the idea of a Zinedine Zidane, or a Diego Simeone – in other words, the big Champions League managers – but knows they are out of the question. Erik ten Hag and Pochettino are possibly available at the end of the season, but not before. United would prefer not to go with an interim, since there are no viable candidates there either. Ralf Rangnick is currently seen as too demanding, right up to the belief he’d want an upstairs role afterwards.
That just leaves Solskjaer there, in charge of a squad who mostly like him but have long realised a change could be for the best, and the club dependent on the team holding steady enough.
There was a subtle shift to Woodward’s language in the comments accompanying the latest accounts. Whereas United were “more confident than ever” that they were “on the right track” under Solskjaer seven weeks ago, they are now just “determined” to bring success with the Norwegian. That determination will ultimately be dictated by results.
If there is further tailspin, United might be bounced into a decision they don’t really want to make or a manager they don’t necessarily see as the best possible option. It could see a move for Brendan Rodgers, who is not currently seen as a genuine candidate. That is where a fixture like Watford and the timing of the calendar is even more relevant.
The hope is that it can be another game where United calm things down, and build confidence again. That is precisely what happened with the trip to Tottenham Hotspur for Nuno Espirito Santo’s last game. A more settled United should then be able to bring their quality to bear against both Villarreal and Young Boys in the Champions League group. If that is the case, qualification for the last 16 and keeping their heads above water in the league at least looks a lot better.
But what if it goes the other way? If United’s generally poor form leads them to struggle against Watford, and continue their troubles in the Champions League, it would prove exactly the wrong time to have these fixtures. That’s because a United squad of this calibre should win these games even in poor form.
The Old Trafford powers are desperate that Solskjaer at least sees them into the last 16 of the Champions League. If not, it will be impossible for even them to deny his time is up. Solskjaer badly needed this break. He now needs a breakthrough in performance.