Why Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tenure at Man United fell apart

In an alternate universe, Mauricio Pochettino’s Manchester United have just passed Watford to keep pace with the Premier League leaders, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is preparing his Molde side for a trip to Brann.

Instead, the reality is that Solskjaer, who was due to hand over the reins to the Argentine more than two years ago, is only now saying his goodbyes. When Jose Mourinho was sacked in December 2018, Solskjaer planned to stabilize the ship as interim manager until the end of the season and let United prepare their Tottenham approach for Pochettino.

United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward still insists there was no turning point that prompted the club to deviate from what had been decided, despite beating Spurs from Pochettino 1-0 at Wembley in January 2019 did no harm to Solskjaer.

The Norwegian won his first eight games in charge, but Woodward was also impressed with how he handled the back-to-back losses to Arsenal and Wolves in March. Woodward particularly appreciated that Solskjaer had the courage to call the 2-1 loss to Molineux the worst performance of his tenure.

Woodward remains adamant that United’s initial form under Solskjaer – 14 wins out of his first 17 games – did not “force his hand” to name him definitively in March 2019, but sources told ESPN that the people around the executive vice president thought he was enamored by their friendly working relationship, a stark contrast to the stress of dealing with Mourinho’s constant demands.

Solskjaer was first made to put “smiles back on people’s faces”, and the smile was there until the bitter end. When the camera wasn’t working for his video press conference after the 4-1 loss to Watford on Saturday, he could be heard joking behind the black screen: “I don’t think they’ll want to see me anyway.”

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Popular, but it had no advantages

Solskjaer was popular with staff, and when United were knocked out of the Europa League by Sevilla in August 2020, the travel department was nervous to tell him they were struggling to arrange a plane to join the Cologne squad in such a short delay. . He told them not to worry and the players would just have to stay in Germany for another night. When the hotel in Bern for the Champions League game with Young Boys in September fell short of the club’s usual standards, Solskjaer didn’t care. “Jose would have gone mad if he had always been in charge,” a source told ESPN.

Visitors to Solskjaer’s office in Carrington were often surprised that he was the one making tea or coffee, while he also insisted on sitting with his players at meal times rather than at the coaches table designated.

There were still concerns that Solskjaer might not be able to compete with elite coaches like Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp (the discussion around Molde in December 2018 was whether he had done enough to land a new contract), but Woodward has told close colleagues that he is “playing the part” of United manager very well.

It started on his first day as interim boss when Solskjaer insisted on ending a 24-hour whirlwind by visiting the staff Christmas party. He gave a brief speech and took to the dance floor, even making sure he was dressed appropriately wearing the club suit left behind by Daley Blind, who had been cleared to join Ajax this summer.

Ultimately, however, some players felt he was too desperate to be loved and that the streak of anger that erupted from time to time was not enough. The squad’s players regularly left meetings thinking they were ready for a series of squad games only to find themselves on the bench at the weekend.

Too much delegation and too many broken promises

Following his return from a successful loan spell at Rome, defender Chris Smalling was told he was part of Solskjaer’s plans for the upcoming season, only to be told on deadline day that he had actually participated. to the deal discussions from the start. Smalling eventually got a permanent move to Rome, but it almost collapsed because his representatives had so little time to sort out the issue. “There have been too many broken promises,” added a source.

One player, meanwhile, was surprised to receive a call from United’s chief negotiator Matt Judge to discuss the advisability of surgery to correct an ongoing injury. When asked why Solskjaer was not the one who made the call, the judge said he was delegated because it could be a “difficult conversation”.

Delegation has become a key part of Solskjaer’s plan, with the 48-year-old insisting he is “a manager, not a coach”.

A number of players have become frustrated with the influence exerted by first-team assistant coach Kieran McKenna despite his limited experience in senior football. He played an important role in the training and selection of the team, and often gave team talks in place of Solskjaer the day before matches. A former United defender was convinced he wasn’t picked just because ‘McKenna doesn’t like me’.

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Steve Nicol is reacting to reports Manchester United are set to sack Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after a 4-1 loss to Watford.

Solskjaer supported his staff until the end, telling owner Joel Glazer after the 5-0 loss to Liverpool that they were “world class”, while sources told ESPN he rejected the offer. to hire another proven trainer. There were also favorite players, and his reluctance to turn became a problem in the locker room. Some players complained at the end of the 2019-20 season that the campaign ended in mediocre semi-final defeats to Chelsea (FA Cup) and Sevilla (Europa League) because they had been overused.

Part of the team, meanwhile, believed Paul Pogba was receiving preferential treatment. Solskjaer tried to make Pogba understand his defensive duties in the central midfielder but, when that didn’t work, moved the France international to the left rather than insist on the need to improve if he wanted to keep his place. Regular criticism from Pogba’s agent Mino Raiola about the status of his contract (it expires in 2022) has also gone unpunished.

Image issues

The club tried to help Solskjaer get rid of an image which at times seemed bordering on “clumsy” to them. Noticing that he sometimes found himself in hot water tripping over his words at early morning press conferences, United moved them to 1 p.m. on a Friday to give him time to acclimatize to English after having spoke Norwegian with his family at home every evening.

Solskjaer also didn’t like the picture and was annoyed when veteran goalkeeper Lee Grant gave an interview on the radio in which he suggested that only Cristiano Ronaldo’s return prevented the team from eating as many desserts as they wanted the day before games.

The jokes, however, eventually crept into the locker room, and the team laughed as they said Solskjaer was the man to go to for Netflix recommendations due to his habit of watching reruns on an iPad in dugout during matches rather than venturing onto the sideline. He still had a few senior players by his side after the heavy loss to Liverpool and received messages of support the following Monday, but that evaporated after being played by Manchester City in the 2-0 defeat at Old Trafford two weeks later.

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Mark Ogden explains why Mauricio Pochettino seems to be the main candidate to replace Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

The right time to go?

Sources told ESPN that Solskjaer, who signed a new three-year contract in July, began to fear for his job following the 4-2 loss to Leicester City on October 16. He locked the players in the locker room at King Power. Stadium for 45 minutes after the final whistle, demanding a response against Atalanta in the Champions League group stage four days later. Despite the reprimand, United were down 2-0 in 30 minutes before saving the game with three goals in the second half to seal a 3-2 victory.

Sources told ESPN that even after the humiliation at the hands of Liverpool and Manchester City, the club believed Solskjaer deserved time to turn things around – only for the loss at Watford on Saturday to “clarify” that the situation could not not be saved.

Solskjaer, meanwhile, believes his attempts to make United a more attacking side are what proved his downfall. After a number of impressive results – particularly against Guardiola’s Manchester City – achieved while playing on the break, he told players over the summer that he would implement a style aimed at dominating more games. In the end, it didn’t work and in the last seven games United have conceded 19 goals. Solskjaer also believes that if center-back Raphael Varane – in his eyes the most important summer signing ahead of Ronaldo and Jadon Sancho – had been in form, United would have been a challenge at the top of the table.

At the very least, Solskjaer leaves United in a better position than when he took office, and it’s possible to believe both that he did a good job and that it was time to leave.

He did not win a trophy but placed in the top three in a row for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013 and oversaw an English record of 29 away games unbeaten between January 2020 and October 2021. In 168 games under Solskjaer, United have scored five or more goals on 10 occasions, compared to twice in 302 games under David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho.

In the end, Solskjaer achieved what he was brought in to do almost three years ago. But with the foundation built, the next step has turned out to be too far.

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