Ole Gunnar Solskjaer started spectacularly well but his three years in the job ultimately brought no silverware as he struggled to prove himself as a top-class manager - especially when the top-class talent arrived...
Monday 22 November 2021 06:05, UK
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Manchester United reign is over but where did it go wrong? We take a look at the problems which undermined his position...
Three years. No trophies. Despite all the humiliating defeats in his final weeks in charge, that will be the damning review of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's time in charge of Manchester United.
Jose Mourinho won three. Louis van Gaal picked up the FA Cup. There was at least a Community Shield for David Moyes. But without silverware, Solskjaer's argument of gradual progression under his stewardship was hard to justify. There was no milestone moment and nothing for United supporters to celebrate.
How things might have worked out differently had that long, long penalty shootout against Villarreal in last season's Europa League final gone in their favour. It may not be the most prestigious trophy but it would have been a boost to belief for Solskjaer's squad, capped a season in which they finished second in the table, and encouraged supporters that he had them on the right lines.
It was cruel that a missed penalty by David de Gea of all people would decide that one. But failing to get over the line in the big moments became a recurring theme of his tenure.
There were three semi-finals in 2019/20 - and in each one United didn't perform. Comprehensive defeats to Chelsea in the FA Cup and Manchester City in the first leg of their Carabao Cup tie did for them domestically, while a 1-0 lead was thrown away against Sevilla in the Europa League.
There was another semi-final loss last season, too. The Carabao Cup's traditional two-leg semi-finals were reduced to one and United were handed home advantage but still, Man City won 2-0 on another disappointing night for the hosts at Old Trafford.
If the penalty shootout defeat to Villarreal was unlucky, those four semi-finals point to a more damning picture of a side unable to deliver when the pressure was on. It was a recurring problem which highlighted wider issues.
Until the recent defeat to Manchester City, Solskjaer could boast to be Pep Guardiola's only regular opponent with a winning record over him. United have won on their last three trips to the Etihad and other standout results, such as the two wins at Paris Saint-Germain, will be proud moments - times when Solskjaer has quietened critics of his pedigree.
But the derby defeat and the 5-0 thrashing by Liverpool before that at Old Trafford fuelled the narrative that Solskjaer didn't have the tactical and managerial acumen required to take United to the very top.
The two most recent Premier League winning managers, Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, will go down among the greats. That's the level Solskjaer is competing with.
Meanwhile, Thomas Tuchel's transformative impact in west London has confirmed the Chelsea manager's quality, too. The immediate improvement he made after replacing Frank Lampard - a club legend perceived to have got the job without the required managerial experience - was an unhelpful point of comparison for Solskjaer.
Appointed initially as a caretaker, Solskjaer's history of only previously coaching Molde and Cardiff was always going to be held against him when he faltered. As results and performances dipped, debate grew about the coaching of United's build-up play, balance in midfield, defensive structure, and attacking patterns.
Pundits picked apart the litter of small errors which in each match would cost United time and again. The defensive mistakes. The vulnerability at set-pieces. The positional errors in defensive midfield. The pressing plans.
But in an era when managerial philosophies matter, Solskjaer never had a clear overall style.
His best victories came on the counter-attack, when United accepted their limitations - whether that be weaknesses in certain areas of the pitch or a lack of coaching of complex tactics in and out of possession.
But that approach jarred with Solskajer's desire to replicate the front-foot attitude of United's great teams of the past - and some of his worst defeats came when they tried to be protagonists.
In a league where Guardiola, Klopp and Tuchel set the standard for shaping a team, Solskjaer too often needed moments of brilliance from individual members of United's expensively assembled cast.
It worked at times but it was never going to be a consistent formula for success.
With nine goals in 12 games, Cristiano Ronaldo is something of an odd scapegoat for United's struggles this season.
He has scored in each of their four Champions League games, with late goals against Villarreal and Atalanta (twice) so far proving vital and accounting for five of their seven points. In the Premier League, he hasn't been quite as lethal but showed recently at Tottenham how effective he remains at the age of 36.
But with United disjointed and uncoordinated out of possession, Ronaldo's pressing - or lack of - has been a focus. So has the knock-on impact of who Solskjaer should select around him and the style changes required to adapt to his strengths and weaknesses.
Would United be better off without him? The argument goes that his arrival has diverted this group off the path of progress they were on and the gains from his goals are outweighed by the impact on their overall play.
But that certainly wasn't the mood in the summer, when they sealed a last-gasp deal to bring one of the greatest players of all time back to Old Trafford and it isn't a flattering reflection on Solskjaer if he was unable to find the tactical solutions to make the most of a player of Ronaldo's calibre.
However, perhaps the major issue for Solskjaer when it comes to Ronaldo is the way his return raised expectations.
He was seen as a game-changer; the superstar player who would deliver the goals to lift United into serious title contention. With Ronaldo recruited, the time was now and the talk of steady progress and building towards something in seasons to come had to be shelved.
Ronaldo is a winner - that's no secret - and any time United's standards dropped, the camera focused on his frustrated figure. He didn't return to be outclassed by Liverpool and Man City or embarrassed at Watford.
It was a signing which ramped up the pressure. It enhanced the spotlight on Solskjaer's work and illuminated his shortcomings.