Never let it be said that Ole Gunnar Solskjær wasn’t the ultimate company man.
When Manchester United finally decided to sack him as manager after a series of humiliating losses and poor performances but didn’t want to use that terminology, Solskjær went along with the charade and said that he was “stepping aside.” He even gave an exit interview with ManUtd.com that was full of platitudes and niceties. He even managed, with a straight face, to deliver lines like “It was time for me to step aside” and “I’m going to leave by the front door” even though everyone knows he’s being shoved aside (and deservedly so, but that doesn’t mean he should have to swallow his pride or continuing taking one for the team on the way out). I can only imagine what Louis van Gaal or Jose Mourinho would have said to that. Probably a two word phrase that starts with the letter “f” and ends with the word “off.”
Indeed, Solskjær was a team player for even taking this job in the first place. When United needed him to serve as caretaker after sacking Mourinho in December 2018, Solskjær willingly left his full-time managerial job with his boyhood club in his native Norway. He had no expectation of actually getting the job full time — then-Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino seemingly had the inside track — but he did his job with aplomb, professionalism and even joy. His sunny demeanor and optimistic public persona were a nice change of pace from the doom and gloom of the David Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho years and when he started delivering results, he improbably started winning over the fans, players and board.
After winning 10 of his first 13 league matches, knocking Arsenal and Chelsea out of the FA Cup and, most memorably, overturning a two-goal deficit and knocking Paris Saint-Germain out of the Champions League, Solskjær earned the job. Sure, he often looked out of his depth against better managers. And his stubborn refusal to rotate his squad, bench underachieving stars or use substitutes during matches still boggles my mind.
But he restored hope and good vibes to a team that has had little of it since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. He cleared the decks and got rid of expensive underachievers like Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku. He held the team together during COVID and didn’t whine and cry when the Glazers and Ed Woodward didn’t deliver his transfer targets to him. He kept doing his job and laying the groundwork for something good. And at the start of this season, it seemed like his project was finally ready to bear fruit. United looked like genuine title contenders — something that couldn’t have been said about any team since that last title winning squad in 2012-13. After years of poor recruitment, United finally looked like they were making moves to win silverware, signing world class defender Raphael Varane, exciting winger Jadon Sancho and, of course, the best player in the world and one of the greatest United players of all time, Cristiano Ronaldo.
But then it all went to pieces and Solskjær was a major reason why. His determination to stick with certain players, like the out-of-form Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw and the much-maligned McFred double pivot, and his refusal to play productive players like Donny van de Beek and Jesse Lingard was his prerogative as manager. But they loomed large once his team started losing, and his decision to double down on his tendencies meant they took on a life of their own. Van de Beek became a cult hero to the point where he got a near-standing ovation from the fans just for entering the match against Manchester City. Perhaps it’s fitting that the Dutchman scored the last goal of the Solskjær Era — one last indignity for Ole on his way out of the job he probably never should have gotten in the first place.
Worse, his tactics were inconsistent and incoherent (if they even existed — multiple outlets reported that his whiteboard consisted of nothing but cliches and slogans like “play for the team” and “simple and efficient”). In some matches, he’d want his team to play free-flowing offense. In others, he’d play on the counterattack like Mourinho. In some matches, he’d press while in others, he’d opt for a low-block. Obviously, you have to be fluid with your tactics, but the radical shifts in approach showed the lack of an established base or identity. Oftentimes, the players looked like they had no idea what they were supposed to do on a game-by-game basis.
And that can be demoralizing. On Saturday, for instance, in Solskjær’s final game in charge, the players clearly wanted to win for him. They just never looked capable, and predictably suffered a 4-1 loss that would have been 6-1 if not for David de Gea. At the end of the match, Bruno Fernandes, the best player of the Solskjær Era who has been inconsistent for most of this season, confronted fans booing the manager and told them the players shared in the blame. According to The Mirror, United players were crying in the dressing room after the match because they knew Solskjær wasn’t going to survive this.
And they were right. Now United finds itself looking for its fifth full-time manager since Ferguson retired. There were reports Brendan Rodgers had it locked up and was even house-hunting in nearby Cheshire. Others said United wanted either Zinedine Zidane or Ajax manager Erik Ten Hag to take over. Then it emerged that Pochettino was back in the picture and was willing to leave PSG in midseason to take over. None of those choices are ideal and all come with significant question marks. In the meantime, Michael Carrick will serve as caretaker and will take charge for United’s important Champions League match with Villarreal.
I suspect that, even if Carrick wins his next 10 in a row, he’s not going to get the job full-time. If Solskjær has shown anything, it’s that there should be no room for sentiment when it comes to picking the manager. United have struck out four times since Ferguson retired. They have to get the next managerial choice right if they’re going to get anything out of this squad.