Solskjaer completed at Man United? Woodward believes he can ship the Premier League title
Ed Woodward doesn’t like the phrase “on the edge”. According to the Manchester United vice chairman, this is too easy as it implies that the next outcome may decide whether to support or fire a manager. He’s laid off three since getting the top job at Old Trafford in 2012 – David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho – but never, he says, because of a result. He insists that every time he looked at the big picture or the journey, the path, the trajectory – whatever you want to call it.
And that’s why he told those closest to him this week that the ax isn’t hovering over Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Indeed, Woodward remains convinced that he has found the right man to win the club’s first Premier League title since Sir Alex Ferguson’s resignation in 2013.
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It was a difficult few days for the Norwegian coach as he first addressed the aftermath of Agent Mino Raiola and announced to the world that one of his high profile clients, Paul Pogba, wanted to leave, and then watched his team exit the Champions League a 2-3 defeat against RB Leipzig.
Manchester City are at Old Trafford on Saturday. While Solskjaer has a good record against Pep Guardiola, winning three of his five encounters and three out of four last season, it’s also a dangerous game for a manager, albeit not under pressure, certainly under attack, after such a demoralizing setback to navigate during the week.
Solskjaer is confident that he has the long-term support from Woodward and the board of directors, but his head isn’t in the sand either. He himself said that at a club with the ambitions of United you are never more than six games away from the bag. A Champions League crash combined with a bad derby defeat and poor run over Christmas would leave Solskjaer on shaky ground in January.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is under pressure again after Man United’s disappointing UCL exit, but does the Norwegian still have time to turn him around at Old Trafford? Photo by Mario Hommes / DeFodi Images via Getty Images
But Woodward sees it differently. In his private life, he points to stats like just five points ahead with one game in hand and only Liverpool, which has scored more points in the Premier League since late January. He has told Solskjaer he is ready to weather setbacks – the Leipzig loss is likely the most significant since his permanent appointment in March 2019 – and most importantly, that the days of hiring and fire are over. Moyes got less than a season, Van Gaal got two years and Mourinho was fired after 30 months. With each transition came a change in team identity and an alternative recruiting strategy. Woodward believes Solskjaer has solved both problems and doesn’t want to start over.
Simply put, this means that Solskjaer will be supported as long as short-term results don’t make his position untenable. There were murmurs, leaks and rumors in the days and weeks leading up to Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho’s layoffs, but even after Tuesday’s dismal defeat in Germany, there was no evidence that he was in imminent danger.
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But not all supporters have that much trust. You will never turn on the 47-year-old en masse after what he achieved as a player, but there are concerns about his resume. Three of United’s Premier League rivals in the north west of England are led by Champions League-winning coaches – Guardiola in City, Jurgen Klopp in Liverpool and Carlo Ancelotti in Everton. Then there is Mourinho at Tottenham, and after Mikel Arteta’s difficult start to the season at Arsenal, he won the FA Cup in less than a year. Solskjaer now has two Norwegian titles with Molde and has been relegated from the Premier League with Cardiff.
Other supporters insist that Solskjaer has been disappointed by the Glazers, Woodward and other senior figures. After finishing third last season and reaching three cup semi-finals, Solskjaer wanted four top players to turn United into serious contenders for the Premier League and Champions League. He got just one – Donny van de Beek – as well as two teenage wingers and 33-year-old free agent Edinson Cavani.
United fans admire Mauricio Pochettino, who is still out of work after leaving Tottenham a year ago, but there is skepticism about whether the Argentine would lead the players to challenge Guardiola and Klopp. Mourinho didn’t say much about his time at Old Trafford but said this: “One, time has spoken. Second, the problems are still there.” In other words, not every problem can be solved simply by firing the manager.
Coronavirus restrictions will be eased in Manchester on December 16 and the Manchester derby on Saturday could be the last game at Old Trafford to be played behind closed doors. Given United’s ability to inspire and flop at all times, it’s difficult to know what the mood will be when fans return to Leeds on December 20, or whether the derby performance will be defiant or catastrophic after losing at Leipzig becomes.
There is only one certainty. It will be more than a bad week before Solskjaer is on the sidelines.