For Ole Gunnar Solskjær, the cycle is wearyingly familiar. The Manchester United manager can win and sometimes win well and it is usually down to Bruno Fernandes or possibly Marcus Rashford. But when he loses it is his head on the chopping block or, more precisely, the list of trending topics on social media.
#OleOut is normally accompanied by some sort of reference to Mauricio Pochettino, the out-of-work former Tottenham manager, whom a section of supporters have anointed as Solskjær’s successor-in-waiting. It has been this way for the best part of a year – Ole at the wheel; Pochettino looming aggressively in his mirrors.
Pochettino has had to wait but he is prepared to do so for a top job, which he believes he merits after his work at Spurs. It is not necessarily United – he is also of interest to Real Madrid – but he knows that select powerbrokers at Old Trafford wanted him in 2016 when they sought to replace Louis van Gaal. And that was before he had done his best stuff. In the end, United played safer and chose a proven winner in José Mourinho.
Pochettino is in no rush. He continues to be paid by Spurs, who dismissed him in November of last year after his first protracted downturn. He could have got back into the game by now because he has had proposals but he can afford to be picky.
Pochettino’s achievements at Spurs – rebuilding the club, establishing them in the Premier League’s top four on a relative shoestring – have not been diminished by the passing of time. If anything, they have been enhanced, romanticised, and his availability has been a major problem for Solskjær.
Any United manager is obliged to win every week. It is not realistic but elite-level football cares not for such detail. Solskjær, though, must also outperform the hypothetical notion of how Pochettino might do at Old Trafford – continuing in the home derby with Manchester City on Saturday. How can anybody beat a ghost?
Solskjær was everybody’s favourite caretaker manager, his record in the post after taking over from Mourinho close to perfect. It was blotted only by the league defeat at Arsenal and the FA Cup quarter-final exit at Wolves – the two games before his confirmation as the permanent manager in March 2019. But even then, the doubters wondered whether there ought to have been a broader sample size upon which to judge his suitability. Why not wait until the end of the season?
Solskjær’s United flatlined between the Arsenal fixture and then and, had the club waited, the decision might not have been so clear-cut. The background noise around him has since been remorselessly loud, save for the period that followed the game’s restart after lockdown last season, when Solskjær had everybody fit and his team played some fine front-foot football en route to a third-place finish.
United are good to watch when they are breaking at pace, and Fernandes brings variation, making things happen between the lines. Where Solskjær has succeeded has been in the creation of an excitement mostly absent during the tenures of David Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho. His team badly lacked fitness in the first two weeks of this season but, once they had built it, they have looked as if they can always create chances – apart from in the dismal 1-0 home defeat against Arsenal.
Since the October international break they have taken 16 points from an available 21. They are five off top spot with a game in hand. Beat City and the table could look rosier.
But nobody seems to be talking this way. Instead, Solskjær is only ever one bad result from an unforgiving spotlight and the calls for Pochettino. It does not matter that the board say they are solidly behind him. Or even that there is such a will among the diehards for Solskjær to succeed. The noise is constant and Solskjær cannot find the mute button.
It has come to feel as though the wins are merely a means of shooing the wolf from the door, of staying alive, rather than building blocks, the means to generate momentum. And when that happens to any manager, there can be no mid-to-long-term picture.
The reasons for the pessimism are rooted in the chaotic nature of so many of United’s matches. Fans like consistency, control, clarity of vision. With Solskjær, it has usually felt off-the-cuff, reactive. When United are not counterattacking, it can be difficult to discern any sophistication in their patterns. Moreover, successfully chasing games as Solskjær’s team have done on a number of occasions might be thrilling but it is not sustainable.
It is hard to predict which United will turn up, even from one half to the next, and it is as if there has been a role reversal in Manchester. These days City are stable from the top down, with the clear identity on the pitch.
Solskjær’s high-wire act has been heavy on extremes, with the best victories elevated by drama and improbability; the never-say-die spirit reflects the club’s traditions and delights the fan-base. But the lows have been almost comically so and the defensive disasters, particularly this season – most recently against RB Leipzig in United’s Champions League exit on Tuesday – have led to legitimate questions about Solskjær’s tactical acumen. When the same bad things keep happening – the slow starts, the disorganisation – the credit in the bank runs dry.
How good is this United squad? Without question, it contains imbalances and it is hardly Solskjær’s fault that the club failed to sign a centre-half and winger during the most recent transfer window. He needs to win the league or, at the very least, challenge seriously for it but is that realistic when, man-for-man, United are compared with Liverpool or City?
So to the derby. Solskjær has won three of his five as a manager against City and it would not be a stunning surprise if he were to win again. Lose, and he knows the drill.