Wed. Oct 21st, 2020

Man Utd

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Manchester United’s perfect Plan B will increase the pressure on Solskjaer

4 min read

Life can come at you fast in football. Just 71 days after jubilant scenes on the touchline at the King Power Stadium, where Manchester United secured third in the 2019/20 Premier League, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer became the favourite in the 2020/21 sack race.

For the second half of last season it was the top-four race that was occupying Solskjaer’s mind and an unbeaten run of 14 Premier League games helped United end the season with momentum.

But a disastrous start to this season, which could have been worse but for the fortuitous win at Brighton in between defeats to Crystal Palace and Tottenham, has sabotaged that head of steam. The air is very much out of United’s balloon.

The closure of the transfer window today is exercising minds at United right now and much of the fall-out from the seismic humiliation at the hands of Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham on Sunday is focusing on recruitment failings, but Solskjaer held his own hands up yesterday and he knows that the pressure will increase on him after this fiasco.

United have been awful in all three Premier League games so far, shipping 11 goals and it could have been more had Brighton been more accurate in a game where they hit the woodwork five times.

The problem for Solskjaer is that there is a ready-made replacement waiting in the wings too. While his own future has quickly become a source of debate, Mauricio Pochettino’s own future hasn’t moved quickly at all.

The Argentine remains available and he would be an easy appointment for United if they decide to end Solskjaer’s stay. That’s not going to happen yet, but the spectre of Pochettino in the background will loom over the Norwegian until his time at the club ends or he makes an indisputable case that he is the long-term answer in the dugout.

Solskjaer might have hoped that Pochettino would have a new job by now, but 11 months after he was dismissed by Tottenham he remains out of work and therefore an easy appointment. The man who was favourite for the job before Solskjaer’s dream caretaker run remains very much in the background.

United’s faith in Solskjaer won’t expire just yet, they have invested too much of it to press the panic button too early. This was a risky appointment when the Norwegian was enjoying that prolonged honeymoon period. A coach with experience only of Molde and Cardiff, the second of which was a disastrous spell, the only qualification that made him suitable for the role in the first place was his connections to the club.

Had United resisted confirming his permanent appointment until the end of the 2018/19 season then perhaps it would have forever remained a memorable caretaker spell, given how the final two months of that campaign fell apart.

But they didn’t. Solskjaer’s upgrade was confirmed in March and that early show of faith means United will be desperate for him to work out. The former striker talks a good game when it comes to the flaws he inherited, where it’s all gone wrong over the previous seven years and how it can be put right, but he also needs to prove himself as an elite-level coach and tactician. That’s something Pochettino has already achieved.

It’s disingenuous to suggest no players have improved under Solskjaer. More have come on during his time in charge than they did under Mourinho. The front three have all benefited from working under him and he’s placed great trust in the next generation, such as Brandon Williams and Mason Greenwood.

But the defensive organisation remains disastrous and there is a sense United’s approach that worked so well at the end of last season has been found out. Teams have worked out how to stop the service to the front three and how to break the lines of midfield to exert pressure on that out-of-form defence.

Now Solskjaer has to prove he can fix those issues. Things could yet unravel quickly for him. His greatest trait last season was picking up results just when it looked like the pressure was building. Leicester City at home in September, Liverpool at home in October, Tottenham and Manchester City in the space of a few days in December and then winning at Chelsea in February.

Every time the walls looked to be closing in Solskjaer found a solution. Now he must do so again. New faces will arrive to strengthen the squad, but United’s fixture list between the October and November international breaks is particularly savage for a side that looks devoid of confidence.

On Friday Solskjaer stressed how important results early in the season were for setting the mood. United’s mood is now foul and in the space of 22 days after this break they will play Newcastle, Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea, RB Leipzig, Arsenal, Istanbul Basaksehir and Everton.

It’s no exaggeration to say it could be a defining three weeks for Solskjaer. If he can lift spirits after Sunday’s horror show and get United back on track it will be another positive for him, but if results and performances continue to spiral the pressure could reach breaking point by mid-November.

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