The corridors of Old Trafford were still full of Liverpool fans who had enjoyed watching their team loot the Theater of Dreams last month when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, representing himself, he gave the argument of his defense.
He admitted that what he had just witnessed represented the “Darkest day” of his three years in charge of Manchester United. However, Solskjaer said, I was not going to accept – I could not accept – the idea of resigning, of leaving. “We have come too far as a group and we are too close to resign now,” he said.
After leaving Old Trafford that day, the idea that Solskjaer could get out unscathed seemed unreal. He had become something worse than an object of pity: it had become the punchline of a joke. That night, United executives met to discuss how they would react. Somehow, they came to the same conclusion as the man they had designated: this was not the time to turn around. Solskjaer survived.
There are several ways to explain Manchester United’s reluctance –a club that calls itself the largest in the world– to accept the obvious: his stubborn refusal that prevented him from acknowledging that his coach was out-of-the-box until not only did Liverpool humble him at home, but disdainfully squashed him by Manchester City and then modest Watford made him look downcast, pitiful and pathetic.
One explanation – the simplest, Ockham’s razor – is an indifferent and insensitive cynicism: United’s hierarchy appointed Solskjaer, initially temporarily and then in an infinite series of permanent contracts, and he refused to make a decision that might be a clear admission of his error, and club owners didn’t care who was in charge as long as the money kept coming in.
Another kinder version could point to the curious sentimentality that seems to infect Manchester United: despite being a organization that behaves in all other spheres of its existence like a faceless corporate monolith, cutting into pieces and selling its history to whoever pays it for a slice, United think with their hearts, rather than their heads, more often than expected.
That sentimentality was present in the rush to award Solskjaer a permanent contract after the encouragement of his first months as an interim in 2018 and 2019, and then again when the club extended his contract last summer after finishing a distant second behind. Manchester City in the Premier League.
Solskjaer is a former player –a club legendas the sycophantic statement announcing his departure put it — and those who hired him found it irresistible how romantic it could have been that he was the one to return the team to its place at the pinnacle. Solskjaer was even allowed an exit interview, a chance to say goodbye on his own terms, with tears in his eyes.
Maybe that should be standard practice: Coaches, even those who lose catastrophically to Watford, are human and should be treated as such. Of course, due to the affection that exists for Solskjaer among United fans, the interview was totally understandable. Nevertheless, not the maneuver most practical, ruthless, and unapologetic companies would do.
However, perhaps United are not as practical as they could be, not all the time. Sure there were many people inside the club who rubbed their hands with glee in the face of the impact of the return of Cristiano Ronaldo last summer: his immense number of followers on Instagram, his army of admirers, his huge business profile.
However, none of this persuaded Rio Ferdinand, Alex Ferguson ni Patrice Evra to intercede when it seemed that Ronaldo was about to join Manchester City. These United symbols served to convince Ed Woodward, the club’s top heavyweight, to step in. Ronaldo’s talent was a factor, of course, as was the status he had acquired in all the years he was absent, but so was his fascination of returning home to the prodigal son, the feeling that he had returned where he belonged.
It’s certainly not the “best in class” behavior that United would like to think of is their hallmark. It didn’t take a lot of in-depth knowledge, not even in advance, to wonder if this small excursion along the promenade of remembrance it could be at the expense of United’s balance sheet, that Ronaldo could relegate the shadows to the future of the club, Mason Greenwood and Jadon Sancho, in particular.
It didn’t take any kind of tactical certificate to understand that Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba, as well as the rest of United’s glittering array of offensive talent, cannot easily be incorporated into a convincing system. It didn’t take a keen understanding to see that perhaps the money would have been better spent on a defensive midfielder. After all, even Solskjaer knew.
However, then that is the great irony of modern Manchester United, the one at the center of the third, and perhaps most compelling, explanation to understand. why Solskjaer’s experiment took so long, from the fall against City and the collapse against Liverpool until the defeat in the final of the Europa League from last season, the 6-1 defeat at home to Tottenham, 4-0 annihilator against Everton and all the other bright and pressing warning signs.
For 20 years, this club only dedicated itself to winning. There is a sign in Old Trafford that exposes how important the final victory is for this club: silhouette images of all the trophies available for an English football team surrounding the motto “We have won them all”. Most of them were collected between 1991 and 2013, when Ferguson turned Old Trafford into a monument to his own greatness.
This is the level that the current version and future versions of Manchester United must match; is the measure by which they have failed, time and again, in the eight years since Ferguson stood on the Old Trafford pitch, an emperor who believed the sun would never set and assured fans that the good times were never going to end.
And despite all those victories, there is hardly any indication that anyone at Old Trafford fully understands how it happened. Solskjaer often spoke of restoring United’s traditions, but it was never clear, in particular, what they were.
In that sense, it adds to a long and not so proud list of Ferguson alumni who have tried to follow in their mentor’s footsteps and failed. During Ferguson’s time in office, United had quite a few players who seemed to have the qualities to be coaches: the quiet authority of Steve Bruce, the inspiring anger of Roy Keane, the fierce intelligence of Gary Neville, his brother Phil.
None has measured up. Ferguson’s ex-assistants have fared a little better – Steve McLaren and Carlos Queiroz, in particular – but there is little evidence of a Ferguson school.
When it comes to making a list of all the things you need to be successful in modern football, it’s easy to get carried away with petty jargon: a clear vision, a defined philosophy, a coherent structure. Sometimes its importance is exaggerated; after all, Real Madrid won three consecutive Champions League titles because they had the best players. However, if they arrive by accident or design, most elite teams have them. Not Manchester United.
Perhaps that is why club executives could believe Solskjaer when he said that, in the face of everything that had happened against Liverpool, the club was “too close to resign now.” A few minutes after the deep gulf between Solskjaer’s team and their biggest rival had been exposed, precisely and brutally, to what United were supposed to be approaching.
However, how were the people in charge of deciding whether or not to remain in his position were to know if Solskjaer was right? They know that Manchester United must be great, because it was with Ferguson, but they don’t know how Ferguson achieved that greatnessso they don’t have any mechanism to measure the club’s current proximity to it.
Instead, they relied on the one lesson the club seems to have learned from Ferguson: that success depends on the gift of a single great individual and all you have to do to get your place back is to find that person. They hoped with all their hearts that it might be Solskjaer. It was not. Therefore, they will now return to their search, hoping to get closer again, even if they move further and further away.
(c) The New York Times