On Thursday, a Manchester United Supporters’ Trust (MUST) email landed in the inbox, urging fans to take a survey during the club’s hour of crisis. A 4-1 hammering to the promoted Premier League side Watford at Vicarage Road was gut-wrenching for the supporters and the MUST survey had a question about the club’s summer transfer business. Strikingly, it missed out on Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival, which came at the cost of signing a defensive midfielder.
Eventually, it cost Ole Gunnar Solskjaer his job.
On the face of it, Ronaldo has already netted 10 times in 14 matches. But United never needed a goal-machine upfront. They had scored 73 Premier League goals last season – five more than Liverpool and 15 more than Chelsea – on their way to a second placed finish. The forwards were doing a good job. Jadon Sancho’s arrival for £73 million in the summer addressed the right-wing issue and Solskjaer’s rebuild looked only a midfielder away – someone of Declan Rice’s skill-set – to reach the next level.
Enter Ronaldo, and it created a tactical conundrum. Stats put out by United’s official app show that in 14 matches, Ronaldo went for a tackle only once and has won just 26 out of 54 duels. In the autumn of his career, the Portuguese star became United’s focal point at the expense of the team’s high-press. It also shifted Mason Greenwood to the right flank from a central position and sent Sancho to the bench.
Without high-press, a sub-par United midfield became even more exposed and the defence wilted under pressure as a trickle-down effect. Before winning their Champions League fixture at Villarreal following Solskjaer’s departure, United had conceded 15 goals in their last five matches.
As per stats, United conceded 0.6 goal per game from open play during the 2019-20 season. Last term it was 0.7. Post-Ronaldo, it has already risen to two goals per game. As much as Ronaldo’s lack of defensive contribution, it was also down to Solskjaer’s coaching staff, who failed to find a system that fitted the five-time Ballon d’Or winner.
From that perspective, it would be interesting to see how interim manager Ralf Rangnick solves the Ronaldo problem. A few years back, the godfather of gegenpressing had branded the player as “too old.”
Like Paul Scholes said, it was a travesty that only Solskjaer was shown the door, while his entire coaching staff was retained despite being equally complicit in United’s mid-autumn meltdown. During his three-year reign at the club, the Norwegian reset the team culture.
Solskjaer, the hero of United’s 1999 Champions League triumph but a Cardiff City discard as a manger, never had the pedigree to take charge of a club of United’s magnitude. But being a United legend, he knew the club inside out, which helped. David Beckham’s Instagram comment following Solskjaer’s departure captured the latter as a person: “The most gracious man in the room.”
Elite football management, however, demands a lot more than a nice-bloke vibe. Once his counter-attacking tactic was caught out, Solskjaer didn’t have a Plan B. His team looked under-coached. His loyalty to certain players like Harry Maguire, Bruno Fernandes and Luke Shaw despite their elongated lean patch, and his continuous overlooking of the likes of Donny van de Beek and Jesse Lingard, created disquiet in the squad. Minutes after Solskjaer’s press conference before the Watford game, Lingard posted a picture of him in a West Ham United shirt. Solskjaer had failed to read the room.
However, the whole irony in his sacking was that the players, whom the erstwhile manager had protected through thick and thin, threw him under the bus.
“There are too many bluffers, and ultimately these players will cost Ole his job,” Roy Keane’s comment last year rang true.
Fast forward to the Watford game last week, Maguire received a red card for a clumsy challenge while in possession. When the team needed inspiration from its captain, he proved to be a let-down. As per the club’s official data, Maguire has won just 12 out of 20 tackles this term and prevailed in 34 out of 57 duels. This is unbecoming of a £80 million defender and he is not a case in isolation. Apart from David De Gea, nobody has pulled his weight.
Maguire spoke about the players’ responsibility after Solskjaer’s departure, but his mea culpa sounded hollow.
A permanent managerial appointment would be made next summer and Mauricio Pochettino is heavily-linked to the role. But can any manager be successful, working under such a broken structure?
The Glazers, the absentee owners, counted dollars from Ronaldo’s shirt sales and revelled in an upsurge in the club’s share price. Since their acquisition of the club in 2005 via a £550 million leveraged buyout, the Glazers have reportedly drained in excess of £1 billion from United.
The club’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, a former investment banker, has now presided over his fourth managerial sacking in eight years. That United missed out on two international breaks to appoint Antonio Conte as Solskjaer’s replacement, when the Italian was free, was symptomatic of how the club is being run at the moment.
And appointing an interim manager with 26 Premier League matches still to be played shows that the club didn’t have a contingency plan.