Solskjær’s rebuild talk cannot mask Manchester United’s sense of drift

The manager’s honeymoon period is over and the defeat at West Ham demonstrated their lack of high-grade options again

It was a soundbite from Ole Gunnar Solskjær designed to cut through the hysteria that always accompanies a bad Manchester United defeat and, make no mistake, Sunday’s 2-0 reverse at West Ham was as bad as anything on the manager’s nine-month watch – with the exception of the 4-0 drubbing at Everton last April.

“I’ve said it many times, this is a rebuilding job and the boys are working as hard as they can,” Solskjær said.

There is a fundamental problem with this public admission. It is generally accepted that, if you offer footballers an excuse, they will take it and the notion of a club being in transition fits the description.

Rebuilding or transition suggests that things will improve gradually, eventually, at some unspecified point in the future. But as for the here and now, there can be bumps along the road – which is the phrase that Solskjær used after West Ham. They must be tolerated, accepted. And, by that measure, it is no great leap to see the situation as working to lessen competitive edges, to allow for drift.

The Fiver: sign up and get our daily football email.

It is not a direct analogy but remember what happened when Sir Alex Ferguson announced at the beginning of the 2001-02 season that he would step down as the United manager at the end of the campaign? In Ferguson’s own words, a lot of the players “put their tools away”. He would change his mind midway though the season and stay.

United are drifting and Solskjær’s honeymoon period, which peaked with the 3-1 Champions League win at Paris St-Germain last March, a night of miracles when anything seemed possible, has come to feel like a long time ago. When United triumphed that night, Solskjær’s record in all competitions read: W14 D2 L1. And the defeat was in the first leg against PSG.

Since then it has been five wins, four draws and 10 defeats in all competitions while in the Premier League it is W4 D4 L7 – or 16 points from 15 games. Transpose that across a 38-game season and it makes 40.5 points. It is practically relegation form.

Thousands of Twitter users laughed at the clip from the West Ham game that went viral. It appeared to show the defender Phil Jones, who was in the stands having been excluded from the squad, murmuring along with a chorus from the West Ham fans about Solskjær being “sacked in the morning”. The executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, turns round and seems to mouth: “We’re on camera. Stop.”

Phil Jones : sacked in the morning
Ed Woodward : we’re on camera, stop
😂pic.twitter.com/OhYvjoN3pT

— Garwain (@Garwain) September 22, 2019

The true context is difficult to know but it did not look good and chimed with the overall impression of disarray, which had been pronounced when Marcus Rashford had to go off with a groin strain and Solskjær looked at his options on the bench. Anthony Martial was missing with a thigh problem while the 17-year-old Mason Greenwood had not travelled because of tonsillitis. There was nothing else to do but send on the attacking midfielder Jesse Lingard and ask him to play as a false nine.

It was easy to link Rashford’s injury to his game time for the club this season. The striker had sat out only five minutes in all competitions and he was pressed through all 90 of the Europa League tie against Astana at Old Trafford last Thursday.

It has not taken an injury crisis to show up United’s lack of high-grade options. With only Paul Pogba missing in midfield, Solskjær started with Nemanja Matic, Scott McTominay and Juan Mata. Would any of the trio get into West Ham’s first-choice lineup ahead of Declan Rice, Mark Noble and Manuel Lanzini?

Recruitment has been a major shortcoming at United for a number of years and the positive reading of Solskjær’s rebuilding comment is that he is only telling the truth. The summer was the first opportunity for him to begin to put his mark on the squad, given the vagaries of the January window, and the additions of Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James represented steps in the right direction.

Consider the outgoing business. United sold Marouane Fellaini in January and over the summer they moved on Antonio Valencia, Chris Smalling, Matteo Darmian, Ander Herrera, Alexis Sánchez and Romelu Lukaku. It was hard to argue with the reasons for parting with each one yet it added up to a clearout and, in some positions, left Solskjær slightly short in terms of bodies.

The renewal process has further ground to cover, with more unwanted players to shift and fresh quality needed. It will take time, at least another summer or two, and the difficulties of making top-class signings while United are a Europa League-level club ought not to be underestimated.

United have eight points from their opening six league matches, which is the same number as Tottenham and Chelsea, but the sense of angst at Old Trafford feels more acute, the spotlight on Solskjær more unforgiving. Perhaps this is because of the credit that Mauricio Pochettino has built at Spurs and the fact that Frank Lampard has just started his managerial project at Chelsea.

Some fans have started to question whether Solskjær is the right man to oversee the United rebuild. The dangers and realities he faces are plain.

Contributor

David Hytner

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Manchester United’s penalty fiasco puts Solskjær’s leadership in spotlight | Paul Wilson
Disagreements in heat of the moment look bad and buck stops with the manager after making excuses for Paul Pogba

Paul Wilson

20, Aug, 2019 @10:35 AM

Article image
Manchester United’s crisis is not of Solskjær’s making but can he fix it? | Paul Wilson
Manager’s limitations are being exposed on a weekly basis but the problems at United run deeper than the dugout

Paul Wilson

07, Oct, 2019 @11:01 PM

Article image
United’s season risks chastening end after Solskjær’s promise of fresh start
Defeat to Barcelona is no disgrace but its manner highlighted glaring weaknesses and a Champions League return will require a swift upturn in fortunes

Paul Wilson

17, Apr, 2019 @11:48 AM

Article image
Martial and Rashford reward Solskjær’s Manchester United rejig | Jamie Jackson
Manchester United struggled to hold on to their lead until telling interventions by Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford that bode well for their campaign

Jamie Jackson at Old Trafford

11, Aug, 2019 @6:21 PM

Article image
Solskjær’s promotional video hints at permanent Manchester United role
Ole Gunnar Solskjær has revealed he filmed a promotion for Manchester United season tickets and admitted it would be ‘strange’ not to be made permanent manager having done so

Jamie Jackson

01, Mar, 2019 @10:33 PM

Article image
Conte keen on Manchester United job as players doubt Solskjær’s capability
Antonio Conte would be open to talks about taking over at Manchester United if Ole Gunnar Solskjær is sacked, as it emerged that players lack belief in the Norwegian

Jamie Jackson and Fabrizio Romano

25, Oct, 2021 @11:31 AM

Article image
Solskjær’s spirit of unity is building real momentum at Manchester United | Jamie Jackson
Pieces of the puzzle are coming together and fans are beginning to believe a first title win since 2013 is a genuine possibility

Jamie Jackson

03, Jan, 2021 @3:25 PM

Article image
Pochettino and Zidane on Manchester United list after Solskjær’s tearful exit
Zinedine Zidane, Mauricio Pochettino and Erik ten Hag are among the names being considered to replace Ole Gunnar Solskjær at Manchester United

Jamie Jackson and David Hytner

21, Nov, 2021 @8:41 PM

Article image
Solskjær’s game of patience at Manchester United is running out of time | Jonathan Wilson
Planning for the future is laudable but at some point there must be evidence of a plan being enacted in the here and now

Jonathan Wilson

02, Jan, 2020 @12:22 PM

Article image
Solskjær’s Easter woes show Manchester United must live up to their past | Richard Williams
Time will tell whether Manchester United really have hit upon their saviour and, either way, the club must rediscover their boldness of old

Richard Williams

22, Apr, 2019 @4:39 PM