In an alternative universe, Mauricio Pochettino’s Manchester United have just driven past Watford to keep up with Premier League leaders, and Ole Gunnar Solskjær is preparing his Molde team for a trip to Brann.
Instead, the reality is that Solskjær, who was supposed to hand over the reins to the Argentine more than two years ago, is only now saying goodbye. When Jose Mourinho was fired in December 2018, the plan was for Solskjær to stabilize the ship as interim manager until the end of the season and let United prepare their approach to Tottenham for Pochettino.
United vice-president Ed Woodward still insists that there was no decisive moment that caused the club to turn away from what had been decided, even though it did nothing at all for Solskjær to beat Pochettino’s Spurs 1-0 at Wembley in January 2019.
The Norwegian won his first eight games in charge, but Woodward was also impressed with the way he handled back-to-back defeats to Arsenal and Wolves in March. Woodward especially liked that Solskjær had the courage to call the 2-1 defeat to Molineux the worst performance of his tenure.
Woodward insists that United’s initial form during Solskjær – 14 wins from his first 17 games – did not “force his hand” to appoint him permanently in March 2019, but sources have told ESPN that people around the chief executive believe that he was seduced by their friendly working conditions, a stark contrast to the stress of dealing with Mourinho’s constant demands.
Solskjær was originally picked up to get “smiles back on people’s faces” and the laughter was there until the bitter end. As the camera would not work for his video news conference following the 4-1 defeat to Watford on Saturday, he could be heard joking behind the black screen: “I do not think they will see me anyway.”
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Popular, but he had no edge
Solskjær was popular with the staff, and when United were knocked out of the Europa League by Sevilla in August 2020, the travel department was nervous to tell him that they were struggling to organize a plane to fly to the team back from Cologne at such short notice . . He told them that they should not worry and that the players should just stay in Germany one more night. When the hotel in Bern for the Champions League match with Young Boys in September did not live up to the club’s usual standards, Solskjær just laughed at it. “Jose would have become ballistic if he had still been in charge,” a source told ESPN.
Visitors to Solskjær’s office in Carrington were often surprised that it was he who made the tea or coffee, while he also insisted on sitting with his players at meal times instead of at the designated coaching table.
There was always concern that Solskjær would not be able to compete with elite coaches like Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp (the talk about Molde in December 2018 was whether he had done enough to get a new contract), but Woodward told close colleagues that he “played part” of the United manager very well.
It started on his first day as caretaker manager when Solskjær insisted on ending a 24-hour whirlwind by visiting the staff’s Christmas party. He gave a short speech and got on the dance floor, even making sure he was dressed appropriately by wearing the club uniform, which was left by Daley Blind, who had been allowed to join Ajax in the summer.
In the end, though, there was a feeling among some players that he was too desperate to be liked and that the angry streak that occasionally flared up was not enough. Team players would regularly leave meetings in the belief that they were set for a series of matches on the team, only to find themselves back on the bench at the weekend.
Too much delegation and too many broken promises
After returning from a successful loan spell at Roma, defender Chris Smalling was told he was part of Solskjær’s plans for the upcoming season, only to be informed on the deadline that he had actually been part of contract discussions throughout the time. Smalling eventually secured a permanent move to Roma, but it almost collapsed because his representatives had been given so little time to sort it out. “There were too many broken promises,” one source added.
A player, meanwhile, was surprised to receive a call from United chief negotiator Matt Judge to discuss whether he should have surgery to correct an ongoing injury. Asked why Solskjær was not the one who made the call, the judge said that it had been delegated because it could be a “difficult conversation”.
The delegation became an important part of Solskjær’s plan, where the 48-year-old insisted that he was “a manager, not a coach.”
A number of players became frustrated with the influence that assistant first team coach Kieran McKenna exercised despite his limited experience in senior football. He played a significant role in training and team selection, and often gave team lectures instead of Solskjær the night before matches. A former United defender was convinced he was not selected simply because “McKenna does not like me.”
Steve Nicol reacts to reports that Manchester United are expected to fire Ole Gunnar Solskjær after a 4-1 loss to Watford.
Solskjær supported his staff right up until the end and told owner Joel Glazer after the 5-0 defeat to Liverpool that they were “world class”, while sources told ESPN that he rejected the offer to hire another proven coach. There were also favorite players, and his reluctance to rotate became a problem in the locker room. Some players complained at the end of the 2019-20 season that the campaign had ended in a sluggish semi-final defeat to Chelsea (FA Cup) and Sevilla (Europa League) because they had been overused.
Some of the team meanwhile felt that Paul Pogba was given preferential treatment. Solskjær tried to get Pogba to understand his defensive duties in central midfield, but when that did not work, the French national team player moved out to the left instead of emphasizing the need to improve if he wanted to keep his place. The regular complaint from Pogba’s agent, Mino Raiola, about his contract situation (it expires in 2022) also remained unpunished.
The club tried to help Solskjær get rid of an image that they sometimes felt bordering on “bumble”. When United noticed that he occasionally landed himself in hot water by stumbling over his words during news conferences early in the morning, United moved them to the later time at. 13:00 on a Friday to give him time to acclimatize back to English after speaking Norwegian with his family at. home every night.
Solskjær also did not like the picture and was annoyed when veteran goalkeeper Lee Grant gave a radio interview where he suggested that it was only Cristiano Ronaldo’s return that prevented the team from eating as much dessert as they wanted the night before matches.
But the jokes eventually seeped into the locker room, and the team laughed that Solskjær was the man to go to for Netflix recommendations because of his habit of watching replays on an iPad in dugout during matches instead of venturing out on the sidelines . He still had some senior players inside after the heavy defeat to Liverpool and received messages of support the following Monday, but that disappeared after they were played along by Manchester City in the 2-0 loss at Old Trafford two weeks later.
Mark Ogden explains why Mauricio Pochettino seems to be the leading candidate to replace Ole Gunnar Solskjær.
The right time to go?
Sources have told ESPN that Solskjær, who signed a new three-year contract in July, began to fear for his job after the 4-2 defeat to Leicester City on 16 October. He locked the players inside the locker room at King Power Stadium for 45 minutes after the final whistle and demanded a response against Atalanta in the Champions League group stage four days later. Despite the reprimand, United were down 2-0 within 30 minutes before saving the match with three goals in the second half to secure a 3-2 victory.
Sources have told ESPN that even after humiliation at the hands of Liverpool and Manchester City, the club believed Solskjær deserved time to turn things around – only for the defeat to Watford on Saturday to “make it clear” that the situation could not be saved.
Solskjær, meanwhile, believes that his attempt to make United a more attacking team is what proved his downfall. After a series of impressive results – especially against Guardiola’s Manchester City – secured by playing at the break, he told the players over the summer that he would implement a style aimed at dominating more matches. In the end, it did not work, and in the last seven games, United have conceded 19 goals. Solskjær also believes that if center-back Raphael Varane – in his eyes the most important summer signing ahead of Ronaldo and Jadon Sancho – had been in shape, United would have been challenging at the top of the table.
If nothing else, Solskjær leaves United in a better position than when he took over, and it is possible to believe both that he did a good job and that it was time to leave.
He did not win a trophy, but secured back-to-back top-three places for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, monitoring an English record of 29 unbeaten away games between January 2020 and October 2021. In 168 matches under Solskjær, United scored five or more goals on 10 occasions, compared to twice in 302 games under David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho.
In the end, Solskjær achieved what he was brought to almost three years ago. But with the foundation built, the next step turned out to be one too long.