For all the positivity Ole Gunnar Solskjaer attempts to strike in public after setbacks, it can sometimes be very different in private. Take the pointed comment to senior Manchester United figures after one Autumn defeat.
“Now I have to listen to [Jose] Mourinho on TV saying things are worse,” Solskjaer complained, in reference to his predecessor’s impressive forensic punditry.
The wonder is what will happen if United suffer more setbacks this week. Solskjaer won’t just have to listen to Mourinho but watch him right beside him on the sideline. Many might expect vintage theatrics from the Portuguese if Tottenham Hotspur do win at Old Trafford on Wednesday, but far more likely is performative restraint.
And more interesting is watching what United do, especially if they also suffer defeat against Manchester City three days later.
Sources say there is a change in feel at the top of the club and the realisation that this may well be a “huge week” for all involved.
It is already their worst season since 1988-89, and the run-up to the anniversary of Mourinho’s sacking on 18 December could bring even more unfavourable comparisons – and uncomfortable questions. The answers, however, may remain the same.
Because there hasn’t yet been a change in stance. Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward remains insistent Solskjaer is the right man for the job. He has repeated this so much in public and in private himself that it would be difficult to row back – but it goes beyond simply saying it in order to save face. It’s that Woodward sincerely and honestly believes it. There is a zeal there when he speaks about the matter.
But with the shadow of Mauricio Pochettino now hanging over Old Trafford, this conviction is set to be tested. As the pressure and tension rises after each poor result, as United continue to flounder, it’s only going to get harder and harder to stand by Solskjaer. Pochettino himself has indirectly complicated the situation. There is a feeling among those connected to the Argentine that he is “making his move”.
Pochettino said publicly on Monday that he intends to return to an “attractive project” in Europe and doesn’t “need a lot of time to recover” from his Spurs sacking. He has meanwhile told friends that he “wants to be in a job as soon as possible”, and has let it be known United obviously appeal. Old Trafford are of course well aware of this and some of the players are already talking about it, with one or two thinking something could be set up for the summer.
That is currently the most palatable way it could happen, especially for the United hierarchy. But in waiting, the club runs the risk of missing out on Pochettino.
Meanwhile, the ultimate truth in football – bad results – keep coming thick and fast at United. And a bad result on Wednesday could yet lead to one of the game’s classic quirks. Consider this winding, year-long road: United got rid of Mourinho 12 months ago, partially to try and get in Pochettino, only for Spurs to block any prospect of that, before sacking Pochettino to get in Mourinho, who may well beat United to make them go for Pochettino.
Solskjaer, more than ever, needs to make his own presence felt. He needs to do what he did in January, when a win over Spurs first made Woodward and the hierarchy consider the Norwegian over Pochettino. Solskjaer must now ensure the opposite doesn’t happen. He needs to offer more evidence that his reign is moving in the right direction.
One of a few proxy flash points between Solskjaer and Mourinho – that adds even more of an edge to Wednesday – came in October when the Portuguese again used that punditry gig for a sideswipe.
“I’m going to try and get a job like Ole has, and speak all the time about the future,” Mourinho said. “I think it’s a great situation, three-year contract – the future, the young players. I think it’s a great job to do in such a giant club.”
Those comments might have carried some personal bias, but they also carried some truth. Endlessly looking to the future should not mean endlessly looking past current problems.
The most optimistic view at United is that this could be the 1988-90 period in a positive sense, that the right steps are being taken behind the scenes. The hope is that the club will gradually reap the benefits of Solskjaer’s investment in youth, as well as changes to the tactical infrastructure of the team – even if none of that is immediate. It’s also true that the players like Solskjaer. Some can see real merit in his overall tactical vision.
Another flashpoint between Solskjaer and Mourinho came in one drive-by from the Norwegian last season. “Man United is built around attacking football and going forwards, not stupid square back passes,” Solskjaer told Malaysian TV. “It’s about attacking. It’s about pace, power, attacking quickly.”
This is what Solskjaer has stressed to the team and the club as a whole, but some worry that this is all a bit basic while others believe the only reason the players like Solskjaer is because he “indulges” them. All of these concerns may well have come together in one key figure: Paul Pogba.
Some figures are anxious that this speedy attacking template was almost entirely based on the midfielder’s unique ability within the squad to play the right passes at pace. Without Pogba, there’s almost no one else to fill that role.
Away from the pitch, as he recovers from injury, the French playmaker is offering little beyond an overactive social media presence. And this is another area that people perceive a difference between Solskjaer’s public and private comments. For all he’s defended Pogba, some sources believe he has been as irritated with the carry-on as anyone else. It is one area where he might be in full agreement with Mourinho. There is a belief Solskjaer would gladly sell Pogba in January, in the process freeing up a deep well of recruitment funds.
It should similarly be acknowledged the Norwegian is encountering a particularly bad injury crisis. But that still doesn’t excuse the approach with the available players. There isn’t all that much evidence of a deeper tactical idea. Indeed, some have questioned the overall strategy – so too the decision-making. Most recently, there was the defensive substitution at the end of the Sheffield United match that effectively invited that late equaliser, and the surprise that he didn’t make more changes for the Aston Villa game.
United, even allowing for injuries, are just under-performing against inferior teams. That’s what it comes down to. That’s why the pressure is building.
It would be worse if anyone at the club compared it to Pochettino’s own workings in a relatively similar situation back with Spurs in 2014-15. He encountered personnel problems and trusted a lot of youth; except, in this case, that trust paid off due to superior tactical ideas. Everyone could see the foundation and then the far-reaching results.
The one thing to be said for Solskjaer is his approach has worked better against the recent big six. United are still the only side to take points off Liverpool this season, and that after a week where everyone expected much worse and for the Norwegian to outright lose his job.
He may well frustrate a flailing City. He may well get through Christmas, but it remains to be seen if he’ll make it out of the wider malaise.
Should United miss out on Pochettino there will still be the interest of Massimiliano Allegri. The Italian wants United more than anyone else in England, as has become apparent to other clubs who approached him. Allegri is also taking time out to learn English to give himself the best possible chance.
Solskjaer now needs to step up. He and United need to realise that the modern game has moved on significantly since the “old days” they always talk about. They can invest time in the future, sure, but current resources are such that this approach needs to be married with results, with a sense of progress. Solskjaer really needs the public statement of a good result now.