Thursday 23 January 2020

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Thumping of Norwich merely delays what must be done - Man United must end Solskjaer's misery'

Ole Gunnar Solksjaer
Ole Gunnar Solksjaer
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Nobody really believes Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is the man for the job at Old Trafford. The debate is between those who think he should go now and those who think he should be allowed hang on for a while.

It's all a bit like the beginning of the endgame in the Lance Armstrong saga. As the evidence piled up against their hero, his erstwhile supporters changed from claiming that he was innocent to arguing that you couldn't one hundred per cent prove he was guilty. Deprived of a believable case, they settled for far-fetched alibis.

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There's lots of evidence against Solskjaer too. His win percentage as United boss (49.2 per cent) is not just less than that of Jose Mourinho (58.3 per cent) but trails those of David Moyes (52.94 per cent) and Louis Van Gaal (52.43 per cent) who were both regarded as having performed disastrously.

Even those damning statistics don't show just how badly Solskjaer has done of late, skewed as they are by the 14 wins from 19 games which saw him upgraded from caretaker to full-time manager last March. Since that appointment United have taken 39 points from 29 games which compares somewhat unfavourably with the 27 from 17 which earned Mourinho his walking papers.

A hardy band of partisans continue to plead the manager's case. The likes of Gary Neville, Roy Keane and Paul Scholes, so keen to denounce Mourinho's shortcomings in the most apocalyptic terms, have been much more circumspect this season. When it comes to their old teammate they've opted for either silence, blaming the players or insisting the manager needs a couple more transfer windows to get things right.

That's understandable, even admirable if you agree with EM Forster's old line about preferring to betray your country than your friend. But it does mean you can pretty much discount anything Neville says about United. You could even interrupt him without having to issue a public apology.

Solskjaer also has allies in those lads who never think any high-profile manager should be sacked. 'He needs much more time. There's no quick-fix solution,' they say in the same self-consciously serious tones used by political commentators insisting the electorate will thank the government for making the tough economic decisions. It's all a question of 'maturity' you see. God love them.

But insisting that Solskjaer should remain at the helm is like saying John Terry should have been sacked as England captain for sleeping with Wayne Bridge's ex, one of those arguments which will look beyond silly down the line.

Ole loyalists may point out that United are fifth in the table. Just one place outside the Champions League places. But this has more to do with underachievement on the part of other clubs than any excellence on the part of United who are barely ahead of Wolves and Sheffield United.

After yesterday's thumping of doomed Norwich, they lie 10 points behind third-placed Manchester City and only 12 in front of 18th placed Bournemouth. The implication that they're as close to the bottom three as they are to the top three did not seem entirely far fetched when watching their recent capitulations to City and Arsenal.

It's possible United may reach next season's Champions League by winning this season's Europa League. Two wins in three years might make them the new Sevilla. But that best case scenario would mark a considerable comedown for a club which aspires to be judged alongside Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Do they still? I'm not sure. Because one of the worrying things for United fans must be the way that expectations are being revised downwards. They're enjoined to take comfort in the fact that Solskjaer 'represents traditional United values' or to believe that a decent cameo from Mason Greenwood shows they're on the verge of producing a new golden generation. There is the sense of a club which has begun to go a bit easy on itself.

Last Monday night Alexandre Lacazette spoke about Mikel Arteta's reaction to Arsenal's lacklustre first-half display in the FA Cup against Leeds United. "The manager shouted a lot," revealed the French striker. "He was not happy because we knew they'd play like this and we didn't respect what he said."

It's hard to imagine a similar comment from a United player about their manager. They're more likely to say what a great guy Solskjaer is and how much time they have for him. Yet it may be that this very niceness, which is another reason he doesn't attract the same kind of opprobrium as Mourinho did, is the greatest obstacle to his making a success of the job.

In an odd way the league wins over Manchester City and Spurs may be a further indictment of the manager. They proved, as did last season's run, that United are not a bad team, they're an inconsistent one. Which removes the 'he just doesn't have the players' get out clause for Solskjaer. He has the players but doesn't seem able to make them into an effective team.

This means the manager is, to a large extent, dependent on the mood of the players. Against Arsenal you waited for some kind of comeback but it never came. The ease with which City put the game to bed on Tuesday suggested a match between two teams from different divisions. Claims that Solskjaer 'got a response from the players' because they scored a consolation goal in a 3-1 home defeat shows how little we've come to expect from United.

Solskjaer is the Count Dracula of Premier League managers. And that Undead status renders talk of transfer windows and war chests faintly ludicrous. Why give the manager £200m to spend when you're not sure how long he'll actually be around?

Meanwhile, Mauricio Pochettino waits in the wings. The Argentinian's reputation has, if anything, been enhanced during his lay-off with Mourinho's travails proving just how much Pochettino overachieved at Tottenham. United are lucky he remains available, though continued timidity might see Pochettino succeed Pep Guardiola at Manchester City and prove just as great a thorn in their side.

By comparison with Pochettino, Solskjaer is almost comically underqualified for the United job. The disastrous spell which led to his dismissal by Cardiff City should have disqualified him from serious consideration. But he was in the right place at the right time to do a stint as caretaker and we all got carried away by the fairytale quality of his first months in charge.

Now reality has set in. After Solskjaer is sacked it's unlikely he'll manage a big club again. Even clubs in the bottom half of the Premier League probably won't have him on a list of top targets. Those counselling patience on the grounds that Ferguson also took time to get going overlook the fact that Sir Alex arrived at Old Trafford with a Cup Winners Cup and Scottish Premier League title already under his belt. There were grounds for believing Ferguson would eventually get it right. There are no such grounds in Solskjaer's case.

The United revival anticipated after the wins over Spurs and City has not transpired. United took seven points from the next five games after their victory at Eastlands, fewer than Watford, Southampton and Everton have done in the same period. It's likely the remainder of Solskjaer's reign will follow the same pattern of peaks and valleys.

There may be days when the Ole fan club is emboldened to declare, "Crisis? What crisis?" But those days will merely stave off the inevitable conclusion for a little while longer.

Shilly-shallying for the rest of the season will merely send a message that United have decided to accept a position as also rans and to seek consolation in talk of transition and the like. But the club has already had to write off 2018 and 2019 as bad lots. They can hardly do the same with 2020. There's more to being a big club than booming jersey sales and a big social media footprint.

It's time to put Ole Gunnar Solskjaer out of his misery. He doesn't really represent the club's tradition or its values. The club's most important tradition is one of winning things. And success is the value that trumped all others for Alex Ferguson. Forget the sentimental folksy nostalgia. This is Manchester United, not Newcastle United.

United's choice is between ruthlessness and irrelevance. Six years after Ferguson stepped down they're running out of time to get it right.

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