The atmosphere inside the locker room at Old Trafford nine days ago was disappointed. Guests’ changing rooms.
The soaked Everton players returned to a draw as they were a straight shot away from victory. Their players were completely unimpressed with United, possibly a kick from Tom Davies away from three home defeats in four games.
United staff had been out in the open long after full-time against Villarreal three days earlier, enjoying the enduring euphoria of a 95-minute Cristiano Ronaldo winner. They would not have to fear that their smartphones buzzed the next morning.
There has been a quiet arrogance over United since signing Ronaldo again, yet cracks have begun to appear under any cover that has externally questioned the manager’s position.
The unified hierarchy will be facilitated. The current situation of the club is incomparable to the last two international international fortnight in October. Newcastle suffered a morally crushing defeat two years ago, and last year Tottenham’s 6-1 thump forced a couple of fearless supporters to go to John Gilbert Way and express their feelings towards Ed Woodward. Woodward did not return to Old Trafford for another four months and Juan Mata was flanked by a press officer for interviews that published his book days following the loss in Newcastle.
Back in the present, United occupy a top four spot in the Premier League and are out of the mark in the Champions League. Every time Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is under the cosmos, his team gathers, be it the fierce draw with Liverpool in October 2019, the double over Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola in the same week or the brave victory at Everton after four defeats in nine Premier League and Champions League matches last year.
It is a consolation for United’s cultural resellers, as Leicester, Liverpool, Tottenham and City are squeezed between the international matches in October and November. Leicester and Spurs are not the scary opponents they were two or three years ago, and Solskjær has had Guardiola’s number a couple of times.
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Just as United are withering and the vultures are coming in, they are coming to life. Some will argue that it prolongs pain. The club could get in full circle with Solskjær this month or go around in circles without ever restoring the glory to Man United.
Success for United this season is winning the Premier League or Champions League, a dull dynamic for a club without silver to place on the museum’s shelf since 2017. The FA Cup could cut it, but its significance depends on the league and European campaigns. The last United manager to hoist it was driven out of Carrington for the last time two days later.
The least required of United is a championship challenge, and so far they also look like ransom. In Europe, the group’s situation is tight, and United’s next three bands are at home and away against Atalanta and out at Villarreal.
Patience is worn out with Solskjær among some matchmakers. A season pass holder announced: “The Villarreal devastation should have been time to shake hands, it was clear he did not have the mentality or ability to control United.” Which Villarreal breaks down, you may wonder.
Matchgoers do not face Solskjær, as they did with Louis van Gaal. Solskjær did so much for United in his 11 years as a player, and his volley at Camp Nou gave them a football utopia. He has also done lots of commendable work as a leader.
United have moved up in the league table season after season, Solskjær has a bulging bag of leadership shells, and he has tactfully managed Luke Shaw and Paul Pogba and produced the best football of their careers. It was Solskjær who insisted on the semi-transformative signing of Bruno Fernandes.
Solskjær has overtaken by lasting this long and monitoring gradual progress and has been able to withstand the pressure as there was always Woodward or the Glazes for scapegoat. Not now.
United had their most spectacular transfer window and it is still a struggle to take them seriously. Scott McTominay and Fred have started together in the last three league games (one win, draw and one defeat), and some of the choices against Everton border on the frivolous. Villarreal, 11th in La Liga, played United for an hour.
Of the four apparent title challengers, United are fourth, and that’s about right when their three rivals have added the Premier League or Champions League trophy to the club museum in the last two and a half years.
It was pervert Solskjær received a new contract when his previous match as manager was the Europa League final, a match filled with poor management from start to finish. “We believe we have the talent and character of the squad to succeed,” football director John Murtough said on recent fan forums. Troop? Yes. Manager? Probably not.
Almost no other European elite club would have endured nearly three years in the trophy-serving term. Mauricio Pochettino, informally contacted by United in the autumn, was available for more than a year, and when he was not, Thomas Tuchel was – for a month.
United were relegated to the Europa League from the Champions League group stage last December after failing to take the necessary four points from their last four matches to advance to the knockout stages. Domestically, United won without convincing: three comeback victories in four at Everton, Southampton and West Ham.
Last season was not a reliable benchmark for United – or most teams – with turnstiles locked. Now the crowd is clicking through again, United are nervous and their 29-match unbeaten league away record has been in jeopardy at St Mary’s, Molineux and London Stadium. Villarreal and Everton both left Old Trafford, wondering how they had not taken three points. United have won two of their last six.
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Solskjær is in an enviable position, backed by a hasty three-year contract, and there is not a prominent candidate to jump into his grave. Zinedine Zidane was embedded in Real Madrid and Antonio Conte is cut from the same rough cloth as Jose Mourinho. There is no credible candidate to break into the top four, and Champions League luck is a lifeline for a United manager. Rejecting the manager in the middle of the season seems unmanageable. Zidane and Conte are probably both unfit for United, but so are Sunshine.
Compliance may have made it possible for Solskjær to last that long. There are no boat-rockers in the United structure after Nicky Butt was overlooked as football director and technical director post. It is not necessarily a productive dynamic. Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet consisted of politicians running against him as president, and the opposing personalities were called ‘Team of Rivals’. Without challenging personalities, United risk not challenging.