The Verdict is In.
Well…the season is over. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has now had two and half years with this team and questions surrounding his management still remain. Things were looking rather good up until the 0-0 draw with Leeds at the end of April. Since then United have a record of 3W-2D-4L. Not to mention the win against Wolves was less then convincing.
To make this slump even worse, Manchester United’s form has tapered off at the end the last four consecutive seasons. In light of this consistent drop off, suggestions about this team’s inability to go the full distance in a single season are not unfounded.
But, there is consolation to be had. United finished second in the league, qualifying for the Champions League. Ole also led us to a European Cup final and a domestic cup semifinal. We are, also only the fourth team in topflight football history in England to be undefeated away from home. And we scored 3 or more goals in 20 games this season.
A Crumbling System, not a Broken Cog.
It is hard to argue in favor of Ole after the team’s performance in Gdansk. In fact, there are a number of points to this game that can speak to the greater arguments against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. However, I don’t think there was a lot about what went wrong with this game, or most other games this season, that was Ole’s fault. That’s to say, there isn’t a lot about this game that Ole had a choice about, because of the multiple factors conspiring against him at United.
Hold your laughter until the end of the article please.
I only mean to draw attention to the fact that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made a lot of good decisions surrounding this game. He also made a lot of decisions that were reflected in Sir Alex Ferguson’s management.
There certainly isn’t anyone out there that would argue that this team performed with flying colors. I would only argue that in haste to divvy out blame we are consistently too quick to point the finger at Ole. Most of the problems with United reside in the poor executive structure and how that has trickled down into the team.
The Evidence Can be Damning.
On the surface, this game was a complete microcosm of Ole’s tenure at United. This makes it a good reference point for his shortcomings as a manager.
- Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made substitutions too late, and with little effect…
- Had this not been a cup game, United would have drawn our 12th game of the season…
- A lot of the time, against lower and more defensive opposition, this team looks devoid of ideas and confidence…
- Ole’s in-game management did little to affect the match…
- Injured and exhausted players were prioritized in the starting line up over fresher fitter players simply because they are considered part of Ole’s first choice eleven…
- It can’t be this hard to train players on how to properly defend a set piece…
- How can this team be lights out one game and a testament to mediocrity in another game?
None of these arguments are unique to this game, which is why they combine to great effect to undermine this team’s success. I still argue that these issues are not a direct result of Ole being a naïve or terrible coach, but rather the circumstances surrounding him and the first team.
Ole’s Tactical Nous.
I have a few theories about the Villareal game and the management style of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Ole is a players coach. He empowers his players by instilling his trust in them. He isn’t a coach that goes back on his word, and he wants to believe in his players to work it out on the field rather than making substitutions.
This was long standing tactic of Ferguson’s. Sir Alex would regularly make late or no substitutions in a game. He believed that players needed to work things out on the pitch themselves. Everything was a learning experience, even if it meant failure.
I don’t believe Ole made his subs late against Villareal because he had it in his mind the whole time that we would play to a shootout. He did it because he believed in his starting eleven and his coaching style dictates that his players live and die by their own swords. If the players succeed, then they gain confidence. If they lose then they gain a learning experience to guide them through future games.
What’s more, its managerial suicide to show confidence in the same 14 players all season to then:
- Change it up in a final by bringing in players that have had little game time and are yet to impress, and…
- Not allow the players that got you to the final the full opportunity to show they can win it.
I’d also argue that there wasn’t a single player on United’s bench that eclipsed or even matched the creativity of any of our starting lineup.
This Failure Belongs to the Players.
Firstly, can we please agree that this lineup was the one that we all wanted to see. Maybe some of us would have swapped Bailly for Tuanzebe or maybe some of us would have started Hendo, as he seems to be our No.1. But, by in large this was United’s most attacking and creative starting eleven.
Someone explain to me, and the rest of the world, how this eleven couldn’t get it up on the day. They could have lost, as long as they played well, but they barely seem interested. That stigma belongs solely to the players, it is up to them to perform in the moment. At that task they failed completely.
They say that ‘a captain goes down with his ship’, but a ship can’t stay afloat if all hands aren’t on deck when the storm hits.
Lets be perfectly clear, against Villareal, Ole trusted his best and most creative players to step up and they catastrophically let him down. In the second-rate spotlight of the Europa League our starting lineup should have run riot. Leeds is a better team then Villareal, in my opinion. Yet, without Pogba, Cavani or Greenwood we still shipped six goals past them. Need I say more?
Where Did it All Go Wrong?
Like most of this season, against Villareal, we got an injured Marcus Rashford and an overplayed and clearly tired Bruno and Greenwood.
We also saw the centerback pairing of Lindelof and Bailly. Collectively they have an average of a 75% clearance rate, but still they can’t defend set pieces to save their lives. Clearly without Maguire we are at a huge disadvantage at the back.
Paul Pogba appeared disinterested as has been a fluctuating habit of his. This also happened to be the one day this season that Luke Shaw seemed to have a bad day.
When Scott McTominay is our man of the match, that tells you all you need to know. United didn’t show up, and we have blatant weaknesses that cannot be fixed without the addition of a few more players this summer and more time on the training pitch.
Villareal, clearly knowing these weaknesses, congested the game and targeted set pieces and penalties. Unai Emery knew that DeGea is historically poor at defending his box and probably has one of the worst penalty save records in Europe. Any coach worth his salt knows what our weaknesses are and teams have been stifling us all season in the same way Villareal did; by playing two banks of four, with nine men always behind the ball and relying on us to fumble an inevitable set piece.
Such a simple tactic has proven hugely successful against United all season.
When All is Said and Done.
Commentary from United legends turned pundits, Rio Ferdinand, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville all came to a consensus. The players, both against Villareal and similar opposition all season, seemed devoid of motivation and creativity. If players with such creative ilk as ours can’t be held responsible for their own drive on the pitch (especially for a cup final) then what can they be held accountable for?
All of these commentators also agreed that its not Ole’s job to get these players to step up. They have to want it!
Injuries, Injuries and More Injuries.
Marcus Rashford stated after the game that more than half our starting line up was playing with an injury. This is likely down to the terribly congested fixture list this season and is the main reason we have had problems turning up for matches.
Speaking as a retired physiotherapist, there are dozens of injuries that are safe to play with, as long as you can endure the pain. Ole Gunnar Solakjaer has shown he is the type of manager to allow a player to decide if they want to play through that pain. Most professionals will never turn down the opportunity to play, so of course they are going to play through injures all the time.
It’s clear that the metrics that Ole is using in training sessions proves to him that the fourteen or so players that he rotates in the starting eleven are more likely to win a game carrying injuries and fatigue then our bench or reserve players can.
He’s not wrong. According to WhoScored, OptaStat and the Premier League each of these fourteen players had higher XG and performance statistics, relative to game time, then that of anyone regularly on our bench.
The Proof is in the Pudding.
Back to my main point.
If the executive team at United had invested properly over the years we would already have the players with the right mentality that provide us with depth and first team rotation. This would not only provide more options in different games, but it prevents burnout, exhaustion and injuries. It also keeps players more motivated if their spot isn’t guaranteed. Telles lighting a fire under Shaw is the perfect example.
If there hadn’t been a pandemic, we would have more time on the training pitch to work on different tactics, like set pieces. The players would also have more recovery time between games.
I also believe there are still players in the dressing room that don’t have the mentality and drive Ole is looking for. These players have remained at United because they have huge wage packets and loads of media power. This means that our executive staff feels we need these players to maintain our commercial pull. Not to mention no one can afford to take them off our plates. Again, a failure of the executive team.
Against the Odds.
Despite this, in his first half season in charge Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had to manage a lot to talking heads, players that weren’t the right fit, and the insecurity of not knowing if he is going to be long term manager. Essentially his only job was damage control, which he did so well, he was given the job on a full-time basis.
In his first full season in charge, he had to mitigate those outlying individuals and congeal a team that he could progress with. In his second full season in charge, he had to begin building a team mentality and philosophy. This so far has also been a success if you consider we came from behind to rescue points in more than twenty games this season.
Ole to Stay!
Ole is the first coach since Ferguson to lead United to three consecutive top four finishes. He also led us to five semifinals and a European cup final.
We’ve equaled a goal scoring record by hitting nine past Southampton. We also equaled the premier league single season away record.
We were the first team this season to have three players with double figure goal tallies.
United have also taken points off of Manchester Shitty in 5 of Ole’s 7 games against them, beating them four times. This gives Ole a better record against Pep Guardiola then any other manager in top flight football.
I believe that these are all reasons enough to believe we are going the right direction under Ole and that these things take time.
A little perspective: Liverpool took 30 years to rebuild before winning the Premier League last season. Arsenal have finished outside the top four in the last five seasons, haven’t won a Premier league since 2006 and have never won the Champions League. Tottenham have only won one trophy in the last twenty years. And the only other genuine challengers, Leicester, have won their only two trophies in the last twenty years by the grace of other teams under performing those seasons.
Things aren’t so bad under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, in fact I’d say things are rather good. With proper investment we can avoid future fatigue, burnout and injuries. With the right players, the facts in favor of Ole would suggest he has what it takes to win trophies with this team. If we can get these players then Ole is out of excuses and I suspect he will rise to the challenge.