Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s job is not to lift the mood at Old Trafford. Not after 1,041 days. The claims of success that are made on his behalf are long outdated.
If the Manchester United job was just about getting everyone smiling, employ a comedian. Do your own jokes at this point, because you know you want to.
What Manchester United need is a manager, a coach, a leader. Someone who might not necessarily call Sir Alex Ferguson ‘boss’, or be immersed in the modern history of the place — and it is only modern history because before the advent of the Premier League Manchester United’s last title came in 1967 — but might win trophies, win titles and improve players.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer now looks to be on borrowed time as Manchester United manager with Antonio Conte (right) the leading candidate to replace him
Solskjaer’s champions still cite last season’s second place but Liverpool had their best central midfielders, Fabinho and Jordan Henderson, at centre half for most of it.
Chelsea were in one of their many years of transition yet somehow became the champions of Europe.
Would Manchester United have finished runners-up against a fit Virgil van Dijk, or with Thomas Tuchel at Stamford Bridge for 38 matches? The idea that Manchester United do not need a figure like Antonio Conte to shape this squad into one that competes is so obtuse and contrary it borders on the wilful.
Yes, Solskjaer seems a good, straight guy. Yes, a lot of his former team-mates are still his friends and would rather support and encourage than criticise. We understand their conflicts. There comes a time, however, when the evidence is overwhelming.
No, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho did not transform Manchester United into title winners — although, between them, they did win the club’s only trophies of the post-Ferguson era — but that doesn’t mean the board should give up on experience, on track records, on course and distance.
Manchester United need a proven, elite coach of substance, to work with proven, elite players.
It is said Manchester United would not have a single inclusion in a combined XI with Liverpool but that isn’t strictly true. The Harry Maguire of England might get picked; the Paul Pogba of France; the Bruno Fernandes who arrived from Sporting Lisbon last year. But not now.
United went for the local hero with Solskjaer but now need a well-drilled, elite manager
And Jurgen Klopp knows what Cristiano Ronaldo could have brought Manchester United. After his signing, asked whether he was happy Ronaldo had joined United and not Manchester City, he admitted: ‘No, I cannot say that.’
The inference was clear. Any side with Ronaldo is immediately more of a threat. United now need someone to make that a reality. Past experiences with Mourinho and Van Gaal are irrelevant. United need better direction than they are getting now.
Other clubs understand this. Roman Abramovich appointed a World Cup winner in Luiz Felipe Scolari, supposedly the brightest young coach in Europe in Andre Villas-Boas and, in Maurizio Sarri, a man who, according to Pep Guardiola, played the best football in Europe.
None of them quite worked out. That didn’t mean he gave up on the idea of a transformative but possibly high-maintenance coach. He sacked Frank Lampard and brought in Tuchel. He didn’t opt for a quiet life.
He didn’t prioritise a cheery mood over performance.
The fans loved Lampard, they still love singing his name but they loved winning the Champions League as much, if not more.
It was terribly harsh what happened at Chelsea last season. Lampard remains a huge part of the recent success because he placed trust in young players like Mason Mount and Reece James.
Any side with Cristiano Ronaldo in it is immediately more of a threat and Man United now need someone to make that a reality
Yet top of the league, champions of Europe, it is impossible to argue against Tuchel’s appointment now. It is increasingly hard to make the case for Manchester United progressing under Solskjaer. Nobody there is currently going forward.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka does not look a better player than he was at Crystal Palace, nor Maguire at Leicester. Pogba is much better for France. Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood and Scott McTominay are not greatly advanced.
Fernandes is not as effective as when he arrived, Jadon Sancho can’t get in the team. Fred is as inconsistent as ever.
And Ronaldo? Manchester United play to his weaknesses as much as his strengths. He has still scored 11 goals in 11 games this season, for club and country, but hasn’t struck in the league since September 19 at West Ham.
It suggests that although his reputation creates panic in European and international football, over here the opposition study the evidence and decide it isn’t working. Ronaldo is losing his fear factor under Solskjaer.
And the crux is this — 1,041 days. After 1,041 days no manager should be hoping for change or even overseeing a work in progress. There should be tangible progress. Clear, visible, apparent progress.
Yet Solskjaer, like his players, is going backwards. He can no longer get by on being Not Mourinho. He can no longer earn praise for sunshine, moonlight and good vibes. Winning matches breeds positivity, too. Klopp has always had a great smile. But you see more of it, and wider, after a win.
Manchester United didn’t err giving Solskjaer the job. He deserved it, not just with the way he lifted the place after the standard confrontational end to Mourinho’s time, but because United improved under him.
Players like Paul Pogba have not improved for Manchester United under Solskjaer’s tutelage
They won big games, went on a run and it was possible to believe that Solskjaer was a coach who had previously been poorly served by circumstances in English football. Maybe with better personnel, and a healthier club environment, he would thrive.
It was right to give him the chance to demonstrate this. Just as it is right to now search — sadly, in vain — for a sign he can effect further change. And, if not, act accordingly. What are they seeking, the Manchester United executives? Is it a quiet life? Elite football isn’t about that. There are constant challenges, a need for progress, benchmarks that must be set.
Chelsea are in a permanent battle to maintain the highest standards, Manchester City went out and got Guardiola having laid the ground for his arrival across many years, Liverpool did not rest until they had secured Klopp, a wonderful fit at the club, professionally and emotionally.
Manchester United have settled. Not in terms of recruitment because they buy big, but one imagines Solskjaer is considerably less demanding to work with than his predecessors.
It must be nice after the dark clouds that surrounded Mourinho to deal with a less temperamental individual, but that alone is no reason to maintain the status quo. Decisions cannot be made so that Ed Woodward serves out his notice in peace.
Decisions cannot be made so that Ed Woodward serves out his notice at Old Trafford in peace
Equally, if Solskjaer acted as a human shield for unpopular owners that protection is fast fading.
It was noticeable on Sunday that there was no fury directed at the Glazers. Even those in green and gold could not blame the board for the biggest loss to Liverpool since the days when those were genuinely the club’s colours, as Newton Heath.
They knew where the buck stopped this time. The players, yes, but the manager, too.
They have been incredibly supportive. They have afforded Solskjaer time, encouragement, love and respect.
He remains a hero at Old Trafford. But United need shaking up. And there are coaches available who would shake them up.
One in particular. Conte. Available — and wins wherever he goes. On Sunday, Gary Neville set out why he should not be Manchester United’s manager. Neville, usually so rational, looks pained trying to defend his friend Ole and didn’t really make sense.
Neville’s argument was that Conte isn’t the right fit for United. But what does that mean? That he hasn’t scored the winning goal for them in a Champions League final? That his presence doesn’t cosily nod back to better times? That he is not part of United’s fabric or culture, that his back story is not yet an exhibit in their museum?
Pundit Gary Neville had refused to call for Solskjaer’s head but admitted things were very bad before outlining why he feels Conte will not be right for United
Yes, that would be preferable. Just as it would have been marvellous if Glenn Hoddle was Tottenham’s greatest manager and Lampard had matched Tuchel’s achievements at Chelsea.
But United have got the local hero at the wheel and it’s not working. And while that’s a pity, idealistic fantasies are no reason to stick, either.
Conte went to Juventus — where he was Solskjaer and then some having won five titles and the Champions League as a regular, starting player — and won three titles as a manager.
He delivered the title to Chelsea after a 10th-placed finish the previous season. Then he went to Inter Milan and won their first title in 11 seasons. He’s a hitman? Yes. He stayed three years at Juventus, but a two-year stretch is more common. So what?
Nobody thought Guardiola would be in his fifth season at Manchester City but conditions are right so he remains. Conte can be demanding, but are we pretending that Ferguson wasn’t? And Ferguson did close on 27 years.
So just a hitman? Not necessarily. Conte left Juventus to be Italy’s manager and, perhaps, because he was disappointed by what he saw as an absence of investment prior to his final year.
Well, the national coach itch has been scratched and funds are rarely a problem for Manchester United managers, so that’s two obstacles removed. Conte fell out with Diego Costa at Chelsea and angered the club by making this public, therefore damaging their chances of selling him at a premium.
Conte immediately delivered the title to Chelsea after a 10th-placed finish the previous season
Again this sounds a very local problem. Few clubs, having won the title, would not have cut the manager a little slack over an internal dispute with a difficult player. Chelsea are the exception here, not Conte.
Finally, at Inter, the club spent the summer selling Conte’s title-winning team, to his immense frustration. Romelu Lukaku went to Chelsea, Achraf Hakimi to Paris Saint-Germain. Recruitment was done on the cheap. Inter turned a £145million profit in the transfer market and are already seven points adrift of the top two.
Is it any wonder Conte was frustrated and, again, how would this be an issue at wealthy Manchester United?
So why should appointing him make them nervous?
Conte is demanding, that much is true. He wants control over transfers and would not be interested in marquee names for the sake of it.
If he thought Ronaldo was a luxury purchase, he would say so and expect the club to listen. Yet is that so bad? Might we presume a 10-time title winner as player and manager knows more about football than Woodward or managing director Richard Arnold?
Questions are also asked about his style of football. It would appear people have very short memories. When Manchester City rewrote the record books under Guardiola, many of the rewrites were of peaks set by Conte.
Conte has a history of managing the biggest names and winning the biggest trophies
His 2016-17 Chelsea side broke the record for wins in a Premier League season (30), equalled the record for consecutive wins (13) and home and away victories over different sides (12). Chelsea’s points total was the second highest in history — 93. They scored 85 goals in 38 games, more than Manchester United scored in 11 of 13 title-winning seasons under Ferguson, including both that were played across 42 games.
Yet Conte, apparently, may be too much of a pragmatist for Old Trafford. Again, what does that mean? His defences don’t often get taken apart?
Manchester United are one of the driving forces behind the attempt to outlaw owner sponsorship via related parties and curb Newcastle’s newly-arrived wealth. They’ve been lobbying on this for years, but it is more important than ever right now.
Why? Well, if seven clubs have similar spending power, finishing top four comes down to football. The talent of the players, the intuition of the manager and United are significantly behind their contemporaries in one aspect right now. They do not have a coach, a strategist, of the same calibre as Guardiola, Klopp and Tuchel.
Maybe others will catch up, too — maybe Newcastle when they make their next appointment. Manchester United therefore have to find a way to restore that financial advantage because their football is deficient. And they do not wish to change the football.
They prefer a quiet life when elite status demands anything but. The case for change is now irrefutable, sadly.