Martin Samuel: Man United no longer act, they are buffeted by events

MARTIN SAMUEL: Manchester United no longer act, they are simply buffeted by events. They could have moved for Pochettino or Conte but stuck with Solskjaer even when he was plainly drowning… now they have no boss and NO plan

  • Manchester United sacked Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in wake of Watford thrashing
  • Michael Carrick is now interim head coach with club devoid of succession plan
  • Even Norwich and Aston Villa dismissed under-performing bosses at right time 
  • United had plenty of chances to go for top bosses Zidane, Conte or Pochettino
  • But they didn’t want to offend legend Solskjaer and now are paying the price 

There were two weeks, just passed, in which Manchester United could have got the house in order. Could have planned for change, plotted a way out of this latest crisis. 

Instead, they chose torpor. They froze. They channelled the spirit, not of Ferguson or Busby, but of Wilkins Micawber. 

Something will turn up, they concluded. And something did. A 4-1 defeat, by Watford.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer waves goodbye after Manchester United’s dismal defeat by Watford

Cristiano Ronaldo complains to Bruno Fernandes amid the shambolic display on Saturday

From this we can conclude one thing: Manchester United are not run even half as well as Norwich, or Aston Villa. 

Both of those clubs saw the international break as an opportunity to affect their recent narrative. Rightly or wrongly, we cannot yet know, but Norwich and Villa took advantage of the lead time to their next fixture and changed their managers. 

They were both rewarded with victories on Saturday and a renewed sense of optimism. 

Manchester United, meanwhile, sink ever deeper into the void of confusion. They have ended up removing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer anyway but with little more than 48 hours to go before a crucial Champions League tie, with an away game against the league leaders to come on Sunday. 

Worse, they have bungled his succession, so that Michael Carrick is in charge while the club seeks to appoint – wait for it – an interim.

First team coach Michael Carrick (middle) will replace Solskjaer for the next games before the club appoints an interim coach for the rest of the season

Carrick finds himself in effect an interim interim but who’d rule out him getting the job?

So Carrick is the interim’s interim. A title so flimsy, so lacking in authority or faith, it beggars belief the club would even try to explain the process in Sunday’s statement. 

It’s akin to being junior to Baldrick in the Blackadder household. United have appointed a manager they barely trust to see out the month while they search for a man they barely trust to see out the season. 

Maybe Carrick will end up with the job, though. After all, that’s what happened the last time.

We all know who should go at United and departures should not stop at the manager’s office. There is barely one strand of the executive – bar the commercial department – that looks up to the job. 

Mauricio Pochettino or Zinedine Zidane appear to be the men that Manchester United want, but even this seems more opportunism than strategy. 

Zidane is the last A-list candidate who remains available after Antonio Conte went to Tottenham and Pochettino took Paris Saint-Germain – yet all of the problems United have experienced this season were visible when those men were free to talk. 

Solskjaer was appointed interim manager in December 2018 following Jose Mourinho’s axing

But Solskjaer got the job permanently after Marcus Rashford’s heroics against PSG in 2019

Despite these various windows of opportunity, the club plugged away with a manager who was plainly drowning, with players who were deteriorating under his stewardship, with signings who did not fit in, until on Saturday when Solskjaer’s position became untenable. 

And now they look naïve and ridiculous because they have no plan. The official line is that they have not even contacted a potential successor out of respect to Solskjaer and fears any approach may leak. Yet they had two clear weeks between games.

Norwich won their first match of the season at Brentford on November 6 and sacked their manager that night, because they wanted to take full advantage of the international break. 

Dean Smith left Aston Villa 24 hours later. United sat tight and hoped, while Solskjaer took a brief Norwegian holiday. No doubt it was all hands to the pump in marketing, mind.

Where is the strategy here? Where is the plan? If Pochettino is the No 1 candidate he was available between November 2019 and January 2021, or could have been approached in the summer. 

Aston Villa and Norwich acted swiftly before the international fortnight to remove managers Dean Smith (left) and Daniel Farke (right) respectively

Villa moved quickly to appoint Steven Gerrard from Rangers and restored a feel-good factor

Smith wasn’t out of work for long and started his tenure at Norwich City with three points

Indeed, the only reason for an interim appointment now is because it would be thought close to impossible to get him out of PSG mid-season. They face Manchester City in the Champions League on Wednesday. 

Equally, given Zidane’s well-publicised stance that he would not take a club job midway, the time to appoint him, if he was considered the man to revive United, was five months ago. 

Instead, United gave Solskjaer an improved three-year contract on the back of a triumph that wasn’t really his: second place by 12 points behind Manchester City.

Last year was an anomaly. Chelsea sacked their manager halfway, yet still only ended up seven points behind Manchester United and were European champions; Liverpool played with their midfield at centre-half for a lot of the season yet were third by five points. 

Had Thomas Tuchel been in charge from the start, or Liverpool had any of three centre-halves fit, would United have come second? Unlikely. 

United had plenty of opportunity to bring in a manager Zinedine Zidane, who won the Champions League in three consecutive seasons at Real Madrid 

They also missed their chance with Italian boss Antonio Conte, who has joined Tottenham 

They didn’t win any of their four league matches against those teams as it was – amassing three goalless draws and a 4-2 home defeat by Liverpool. 

Yet United’s executive chose to look at nothing more than a league table and, taking its false reading of the state of the English game, decided Solskjaer was the man for the job, long term. 

Subsequently, they have been hugely off the pace against elite opponents. Nobody can argue it wasn’t foreseeable.

Carlo Ancelotti once explained the change in modern football. When he played, he said, you got the ball, thought about where you would pass it, then passed. 

That was no good anymore. Unless a player knew where the ball was going next before he received it, that would be too late. 

Richard Scudamore said similar during his time at the Premier League. If any of his executives fell under a metaphorical bus, he already knew who would be offered the job, he claimed. 

Mauricio Pochettino has also been linked with the United job but is currently at PSG

United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward will leave with another sacking on his watch

By contrast, Manchester United seem buffeted by events. Stuff happens to them. 

They didn’t plan to buy Cristiano Ronaldo this summer; they didn’t plan to give Solskjaer a permanent job. And Pochettino or Zidane? It would be a coup if it happened, but there is little to suggest it was on any agenda before Watford’s third goal on Saturday.

Some restaurant critics now talk of eateries or their individual dishes as being instagrammable. It’s not the food, or the flavour, that is the draw, but the design, the look, the space. 

Manchester United seem to want to be the instagrammable club. Alexis Sanchez’s piano intro; the production line of marquee names; the admission that social media profiles are shamelessly manipulated. 

Zidane and Pochettino are fine coaches, but instagrammable too, ticking the box marked global fanbase attractions. Nothing else, however, suggests arrivals are smartly scheduled. 

Avram Glazer, United’s owner, in the stands at Old Trafford for Cristiano Ronaldo’s return in September. The lack of a managerial succession plan has now been brutally exposed

It is coincidence that reunites Zidane with former Real Madrid men Ronaldo and Raphael Varane, not the pulling of strings. 

And if Pochettino chimes with United’s stated youth policy, so he did less than a year ago: when they ignored him.

Pep Guardiola’s appointment at Manchester City was years in the making. They got his Barcelona CEO in, they got his friend to be director of football. 

Manuel Pellegrini, his predecessor, was a coach who had worked extensively in LaLiga playing a brand of football not dissimilar to Guardiola’s. 

Players given to Pellegrini were the type that might work for Guardiola, too. Would Zidane or Pochettino’s appointment echo that? Hardly. 

Manchester City put in the ground work to appoint Pep Guardiola and have been rewarded

For years, all we have heard is that Solskjaer is forging the new United around young players, ambitious and energetic. Then, the arrival of 36-year-old Ronaldo. 

Now, the possible recruitment of a coach whose only experience is with a club where big names trump all. Madrid create the odd Galactico, too, yet of the three teams that started the victorious Champions League finals under Zidane only Dani Carvajal was a product of Madrid’s youth system. 

Pochettino’s style, meanwhile, is completely different to what we see from United now. Whoever follows Solskjaer will bring another new era, another roll of the dice.

So what of Solskjaer? From hero to, if not exactly zero, most certainly a man who is unlikely to receive an opportunity of such magnitude again. 

He deserved his chance for turning the club around spiritually after the standard gloom that precedes the exit of Jose Mourinho. Solskjaer, famously, got Manchester United. 

Miserable Man United fans vented their fury at Solskjaer and his players at Watford

Its modern history, its status, he showed love and respect and was a bona fide terrace idol. The early results, too, were impressive. 

The interim period included a well-planned victory at Tottenham, and away victories over Arsenal and Chelsea in the FA Cup. The 3-1 win in the Parc des Princes to eliminate PSG made his feelgood appointment irresistible.

Yet even that season there were disquieting signs. United won just two of their last 12 matches, a consistent pattern of inconsistency that was to be repeated many times over. 

The fans still supported him, particularly away, because he was United to the core, and the winning goal in a Champions League final – to clinch the treble, no less – is not easily erased. It could not, however, obscure this season’s downturn forever.

Solskjaer apologises to the United fans at Watford but knew his cause was a hopeless one 

What remains, then, is the impression of a thoroughly decent man, who did his best but was found wanting at the elite level of management. 

Roy Keane tells a story of Solskjaer, his Old Trafford team-mate. It was Keane’s final team meeting as a player, the row with Sir Alex Ferguson that effectively ended his career. Keane was furious, and went further than he had ever done before. 

Ferguson eventually told him to shut up, and Keane left the room. The conversation with the other team members continued but Solskjaer, and Paul Scholes, said they were uncomfortable discussing Keane without him present. 

Solskjaer got up to leave. Ferguson ordered him to stay. Solskjaer, his own man, just kept walking. 

A noble soul, but then, as now, the reasons for his departure were entirely unarguable.

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