Say this for Manchester United – they committed to the bit. The comedy value for outsiders looking in wasn’t just in the fact that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was out of his depth. It really lay in the absolute refusal of the club to act on the failing that was so evident to everyone else.
They were Monty Python’s Black Knight, standing there having lumps sliced off them for the entertainment of the watching world.
In hanging in there with Solskjaer for so long, they have gone one step further than merely allowing one of the world’s superclubs to potter along with a sub-par manager.
They have, into the bargain, now spectacularly fumbled the process by which he will be replaced. Solskjaer’s seat will, for the next while at least, be filled by Michael Carrick, someone who has even less managerial experience than Solskjaer had when he took over in December 2018.
Think about that. Carrick has been a key part of the coaching staff throughout a period of patently bad coaching. It’s not as if they plucked someone from the academy here and told him to go and dead-bat press conference questions for a couple of weeks until it all blows over. They have installed as interim manager someone has been intimately involved in everything that has gone wrong.
What has United’s fall been if it hasn’t been an abject failure of coaching? At its most basic level, Manchester United have dispensed with Solskjaer because results have fallen below the level the playing staff ought to be capable of.
But the playing staff has coughed up those results because they keep giving away goals that are the trademark of a team that hasn’t been coached properly.
Solskjaer kept his job for so long because he had one of the most expensively-assembled squads in the history of the game. Spend enough money and you’ll generally find yourself with access to the odd player who will dig you out of a hole against a mid-table Premier League team of a winter Saturday. It’s the baked-in advantage United enjoy in a money-rigged game.
But elite-level coaching is supposed to be visible even within that context. It’s supposed to raise the floor of dependable performance to a level that allows the star turns to rocket-boost the whole project off into the stratosphere.
At United, the floor was sinking all the while, first to the point where late goals against teams with fractions of their budget were needed to keep them alive in the Champions League. And latterly, to the point where the luck ran out with four defeats in five Premier League games.
Carrick has been a central part of all of that. So much so that when his fellow assistant coach Mike Phelan was given a new three-year contract last month, United made it known that the same was on the table for both Carrick and Kieran McKenna.
That’s Solskjaer’s three most-trusted lieutenants who the club were trying to tie down to long-term contracts. United being United, they were doing so at a time when they had lost to Aston Villa, West Ham and Young Boys in three different competitions in the previous three weeks. As if anyone was going to come in and poach them.
And now Carrick is the manager. He must be at least slightly stunned to still have a job this morning, never mind one where Cristiano Ronaldo has to call him gaffer. There might be no better summing up of the knots United have tied themselves in than the fact that Carrick will be the one wearing the smart blazer in Villarreal on Tuesday night.
“Michael Carrick will now take charge for the forthcoming games, while the club looks to appoint an interim manager until the end of the season,” read United’s club statement yesterday morning.
So Carrick is a pre-interim interim, a place-holder for a place-holder, someone who’s only plucking pheasants till the pheasant plucker comes. Roughly translated, they’re basically admitting they haven’t a clue what they’re doing next.
Which would be fine and even understandable if any of this had come as a surprise. But we’re not talking about an act of God here or a natural disaster. United having to sack Solskjaer didn’t fall from the clear blue sky. As an outcome, it has at least been in the ether for well over a year and has become entirely predictable in the last month. How they don’t have a contingency plan beyond cattle-prodding Carrick out in front of the cameras today beggars belief.
Or it would, if it wasn’t this United regime at this point in the club’s history. One whose immediate response on Saturday to the 4-1 to Watford defeat was to immediately Tweet its 28.4m followers to implore them to “Get full-time reaction in our app.”
Never mind the football, feel the data-scraping.
Social media signing
There was a delicious irony in the fact that United probably would have won on Saturday had Ronaldo taken his chances. The ultimate social media signing was off form against Watford but still had a couple of clear sights of goal in the second half either side of Harry Maguire’s hapless yellow cards. Had he taken them and had United turned it all around for another glorious 3-2, Solskjaer would have survived another while.
The clips would have pinged around phones and screens from Urlingford to Ulan Bator. It would have been another shovel into the United myth cement mixer. The whole show would have kept spinning along, fed on a drip of its own storytelling. Alas, he was more Ronnie Corbett than Ronaldo on Saturday and so the Solskjaer era is done.
It is done and they have nowhere to go. In the time he was in charge of United, Mauricio Pocchetino, Thomas Tuchel and Antonio Conte were all available and all went to other clubs. They have all the money in the world, all the players they need – and will surely go and get more. They have a vast fanbase, incredible institutional memory and, when it comes right down to it, no good excuse to be this bad at football.
United’s sickness stems from the neglect of the marketing spivs running the club. Solskjaer was always just a symptom. There’s no reason right now to presume the next guy will fare any better.