Wednesday 18 September 2019

Paul Hayward: 'Solskjaer the latest victim of a rotten squad culture'

Talking point

Manchester United's Phil Jones looks dejected after the match. REUTERS/Sergio Perez
Manchester United's Phil Jones looks dejected after the match. REUTERS/Sergio Perez
City slickers: Manchester City players including Oleksandr Zinchenko (centre) at training yesterday ahead of tonight’s Manchester derby. Photo: Victoria Haydn

Paul Hayward

In true Glazer style, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was appointed as a kind of sales rep of the month. After some brand-boosting returns, Manchester United jumped at the easiest option without exhausting the other possibilities.

But United's problem is not Solskjaer, a stand-up guy who represents everything the club are meant to be about. United supporters must be asking themselves: when the Glazers and Ed Woodward, their boss on the ground, awarded Solskjaer a permanent contract on March 28, did they first establish that Mauricio Pochettino and others were completely "ungettable"?

Was it really a "thorough process", or did they just like Solskjaer's numbers and the smiles on everyone's faces?

Again, though, United's malaise does not start in the manager's office.

Forget the smiles. On Jose Mourinho's face the truth about this squad showed as anger. In Solskjaer's features you can see shock that United players can be so passive, so unprofessional.

The hardest thing for a manager to observe is a rotten squad culture, and United have one, which requires a purge of the sort the club are ill-equipped to pursue.

There is no wish to rewrite Mourinho's time at United, which was grim, but Solskjaer's predecessor was right about one thing: there is something rotten in Peter Schmeichel's old state of Denmark. This is not intuition.

It can be proved.

When Solskjaer lifted the cloud of Mourinho's negativity, United proceeded to win eight consecutive away games in all competitions for the first time in their history. What a road trip. Solskjaer scored 14 wins and two draws in 19 games as caretaker. Woodward called the new manager's permanent appointment "richly deserved" without stopping to wonder how the players would then respond to this easing of the pressure and the return of the United grin.

Read more: Title charge is unrealistic - Solskjaer

Cut to today, where they have lost six of their past eight games in all competitions and are back to sixth in the table, where Mourinho left them.

The 4-0 defeat at Everton - a shockingly negligent display - was their fifth consecutive away loss, matching Dave Sexton's run in 1981. Eleven games without a clean sheet is their worst since 1998.

This pattern is consistent with the six years since Alex Ferguson retired - and Solskjaer is merely the latest victim of an ethos gone wrong.

You cannot in one phase from December to April win eight consecutive away games and then lose six from eight unless the players are picking and choosing when to apply themselves.

Serious teams do not perform the way United did at Goodison Park.

The senior players, the leaders, do not allow it. Or, if it happens once or twice, they stop it with a truth and reconciliation session which the manager has no need to be at. That way, a failing side correct themselves.

But United's mode for six years has been to look busy, disengage, look busy again and then disengage once more according to how much they like the manager, how their contract talks are going and how much they can be bothered to chase superior teams: Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, and, recently and painfully, Barcelona in Europe.

Solskjaer thought he could halt this contagion by reviving the Ferguson era, but now sees the decadence in his dressing room. "If you want to play at this club it has to mean more," he said at Everton: a seminal remark that ends the buddy act between him and his players, who probably thought he would be a nice, easy guv'nor.

Mourinho went further, lacerating individuals and team alike. Dismay - and sometimes disdain - laced his assessment of the maturity and professionalism of some of his players, several of whom, it should be said, were brought in on his watch.

The sense is that, after Mourinho's sacking, the players clocked back on, but then lost interest again when Solskjaer was appointed permanently and maintaining the good run started to feel like hard work. But then we ought to try seeing it through their eyes for the sake of balance.

First, they know United are oceans behind City and Liverpool, and that the squad are weak after six years of impetuous recruiting. And the bad decisions continue. A cosy new four-year deal for Phil Jones set off alarms that rang louder than ever at Barcelona and Everton.

Corporate

When United's best players look up to the corporate level, they see a deal-making factory. When they look sideways, they see team-mates who are fourth in the Premier League at best.

To them, Alexis Sanchez must be emblematic of a shallow, capricious transfer strategy. The household names - David de Gea, Paul Pogba - must feel mired in mediocrity.

Lesser lights may consider it a thankless task to match the great United sides of the past when there is no leadership and insufficient star quality to compete with City and Liverpool.

Solskjaer cannot change this ennui, so he has to change the players; to start again, with a clear-out of eight to 10 passengers and a search for two top centre-halves, and world-class creative and deep midfielders.

In all those areas United are average-to-poor, by their standards. But to pull this off, Solskjaer needs owners who accept how badly the recent past has been managed, and what the future should look like. Alas, a flawed culture starts at the top. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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