A Manchester United Unicef dinner in late January revealed the picture was far more complicated than it first seemed when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer arrived as manager.
The Norwegian’s team had strolled to seven straight wins, leaving you wondering why the club hadn’t thought of going back to the old school sooner. But guests who had paid out for tables at the Old Trafford event were puzzled by Paul Pogba’s apparent disappearance after 45 minutes. They found Alexis Sanchez less than enthusiastic when approached.
“The Spaniards — Juan Mata, Ander Herrera and David De Gea — were a different class,” says one guest. Solskjaer’s powers of transformation evidently had their limits. The fundamental humility and humanity of this individual, pictured collecting his clothes from an Altrincham dry cleaners this winter, were like a warm breeze after the preening and self-absorption of Jose Mourinho. But if the past has taught United anything, it is that a fundamental niceness cannot sustain a football team.
There was a myriad of miseries in the team’s defeat by relegated Cardiff on Sunday, not least the footage of fans remonstrating with Pogba. But a Premier League ‘value for money’ table, published by Sporting Intelligence, surely topped the lot. It revealed Cardiff paid each of their players an average £28,161 for every point they won this season — better value than any side. United were rock bottom, dishing out a monumental £99,010 per point — nearly £20,000 more than any other club.
It says everything that they could not find a way to beat two of the three relegated sides in the season’s last week. Solskjaer now reflects that the necessary rebuild could take years, though it is impossible to sustain an argument he can lead the vast and complex job of overhauling a club which finds itself staggering around in the dark.
He has been a welcome release from the intimidating conduct of Mourinho. But beyond his vague attempt to introduce more pace, in keeping with the United of yore, there has been no evidence he has known what to do with those at his disposal. The players sense it. It’s hard to find any exhilaration in their ranks about what lies ahead.
The manager has talked relentlessly of improving their work-rate, though this side have covered less distance than the opposition in 18 of the 21 games they have played under him. Management requires an edge; a professional distance between players and leader. Clubs as adrift as United can haemorrhage talent. Pogba had wanted to leave for Real Madrid. Now it is thought he just wants to leave. There is thought to be some enthusiasm for Marcus Rashford at Manchester City, who have always been ready to raid United in their relentless quest for self-improvement.
Old Trafford can no longer recruit players on the basis of reputation and legend. Monumental salaries may no longer be enough. United’s rush to make Solskjaer’s appointment permanent was in keeping with the way they have lurched from one disaster to the next without any method in the past six years. A little due diligence would have told them that Solskjaer was not a visionary in his brief managerial time at Cardiff in 2014. He arrived with a philosophy of ball retention but Cardiff — relegated in the season he arrived — lacked any identity.
He looked out of his depth. United do not seem capable of any diligence as they grapple for a way out; obsessed by the spirits of ages past, they conjure with Mike Phelan, Darren Fletcher and Rio Ferdinand for strategic and recruitment roles, when none of the above have any experience or track record. Stuart Webber, the sporting director who has delivered Norwich and Huddersfield to the Premier League, would doubtless be considered too prosaic for the so-called Theatre of Dreams.
So, too, Dan Ashworth, architect of England’s winning structure before he left for Brighton. Edwin van der Sar, chief executive of the young Ajax side who have moved mountains, has not entered the conversation. A club with a modicum of curiosity and intellectual energy would have spoken to all three. We are about to hear more about ‘Ole at the Wheel’. The imminent 20th anniversary celebrations of United’s 1999 Munich miracle will prompt a new wave of sentiment. But the rose tint of past glories did not secure a trophy for anyone.
Better Solskjaer goes now and the embarrassment of a U-turn than another grim autumn and a sacking by Christmas. If Mauricio Pochettino feels a Champions League final is as far as he can take Tottenham, then United should make their move. If not, they should be seeking alternatives. As Sir Alex Ferguson was fond of reminding us, the spoils in football go to those who are modern and progressive. The ones who look ahead.