News, Culture & Society

MARTIN SAMUEL: Man United’s Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looks like a Cardiff boss again

Hearing Dominic Cummings speak this week, it is hard to believe he ever seriously thought Boris Johnson was the man to lead Britain.

More, Johnson was a populist who could get Brexit done. And Cummings, more than anything, wanted to get Brexit done.

It was much the same when Ed Woodward helped steer Ole Gunnar Solskjaer into his position of power.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (middle) could not steer Manchester United to Europa League glory 

It is barely consistent that Manchester United should jump from Louis van Gaal to Jose Mourinho, to the former manager of Molde and Cardiff City, but United were under a cloud.

And Woodward needed to lift that cloud. So he gave the job to a local hero, a boyish, positive, smiling force for good who the supporters would gladly indulge, short-term at least.

And then, when he started winning — and he won some very big games too — he became irresistible. Everyone said so.

Yet was he ever really the man for the job, in Woodward’s eyes, or just a man for the moment?

We cannot know for certain; but as another season slipped by without United’s name on a trophy, Solskjaer looked less like a manager who can return United to the pinnacle, and more like the manager of Cardiff City. Cardiff, but with really, really good players.

Solskjaer’s time in Wales ended with Cardiff 17th in the Championship, having been relegated.

The United manager has not yet done enough to convince that he is the man for the long term

The United manager has not yet done enough to convince that he is the man for the long term 

Yet even his critics admit there were days when they played some really nice football. 

There wasn’t a noticeable structure, or style, as there was under his predecessor Malky Mackay, or Neil Warnock, who took the job two years after his departure. Yet when it came off, Cardiff looked good. The problem was, that with the players Solskjaer had at his disposal, it didn’t come off too often.

Now imagine that, but with Bruno Fernandes, Edinson Cavani, Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford and in the red shirt of Manchester United.

With elite talent, the free approach comes off quite often; but even when it only works for a half, or just 30 minutes, that will still be too much for a great many of Manchester United’s opponents. 

In a season when Liverpool suffered insurmountable injury problems, and Chelsea and Tottenham sacked their managers, it was enough to come second. By 12 points, admittedly. Yet it felt like progress.

United hoped Bruno Fernandes or Edinson Cavani could save them and there was no strategy

United hoped Bruno Fernandes or Edinson Cavani could save them and there was no strategy

And then a European final came along and met Cardiff plus plus with structure.

And they couldn’t adapt and they couldn’t break it down and just hoping that Fernandes finds Cavani with a pass was far removed from an identifiable strategy.

Yet this is what United’s executives wished for at the time. Popularity. Nostalgia. A man the people could get behind.

None of this is Solskjaer’s fault, really. He has done exactly what was asked of him, and no more.

FAIR BIT OF POSTURING GOING ON 

Fair Game are the latest pressure group to be launched as a result of the threatened Super League breakaway. Their founder members include AFC Wimbledon, Luton, Exeter, Newport and Cambridge and they are backed by former FA chairman David Bernstein, who is full of innovative ideas now he is no longer in a position to act on them.

Fair Game seek fan representation on boards, changes to fit and proper screening for owners and safeguards to stop clubs like Bury going bust. One might call it the usual. 

The leader is Niall Couper, who sits on the Dons Trust board at AFC Wimbledon. ‘There has never been a better opportunity to reboot and for clubs to act together as a united voice,’ he announced. ‘Our principles are integrity, sustainability, independent regulation and community ethos.’

Quite where this unity and integrity came in last season, when AFC Wimbledon voted to curtail the League One schedule meaning Tranmere Rovers went down on points per game, not them, who can say?

But no doubt Fair Game can fill us in at their next lecture.

WHY LIFE AFTER NUNO COULD PITCH WOLVES INTO TROUBLE 

As Nuno Espirito Santo neared the end at Wolves, it was suggested the club would undergo a radical overhaul. 

Recruitment would be adjusted to bring in more English and English-based players. That isn’t quite how it is working out.

Wolves are in talks with Bruno Lage. He has experience as an assistant to Carlos Carvalhal at Swansea and Sheffield Wednesday, and led Benfica impressively to the title in 2018-19. 

Yet that was also his first job as a manager after a career spent in youth and assistant roles. At the end of his second Benfica season, he left after an alarming drop in form at the end of the campaign as Porto claimed the title. 

Bruno Lage has emerged as front-runner for the Wolves job after Nuno Espirito Santo left

Bruno Lage has emerged as front-runner for the Wolves job after Nuno Espirito Santo left

This is not exactly a stellar c.v. Lage spent almost as long as Under 19 and B team manager with Shabab Al-Ahli in Dubai as he did in English football.

Yet he is a client of Jorge Mendes, the agent whose recruitment advice has brought so many good players to Molineux. Wolves are trapped. 

The make-up of their squad, the culture of the club right down to their change colours, makes them a Portuguese enclave in the West Midlands. Even if the players needed to hear a different voice, it was never going to be one that was unfamiliar to Mendes and his roster. 

And, yes, he helped make wonderful choices for Wolves in the past. Yet they must take his word Lage is their man. Really, what other option is there?

NO VAR IN PLAY-OFF FINALS MAKES NO SENSE 

On Saturday, Brentford face Swansea in what is now tagged football’s richest match. 

As much as the EFL moan about Premier League wealth, they remain shameless in playing up the annual battle to claim the Championship play-off promotion spot.

Yet despite the £160million on offer, the final place could be decided by an official’s error. There will be no VAR at any of the divisional play-off finals, despite Wembley having the technology for it. Imagine, then, if this match is decided on a blatant miscarriage of justice? 

The EFL’s take is that as VAR has not been used in the league season, this is a consistent approach. Yet the play-offs are unique encounters with huge amounts at stake. It is ludicrous to treat them like another Wednesday night at Port Vale; but rather typical of the EFL. Too much plotting, not enough planning.

Brentford take on Swansea in a seismic game for both clubs but there will be no use of VAR

Brentford take on Swansea in a seismic game for both clubs but there will be no use of VAR

BALE WRONG ON ‘CHAOTIC’ FUTURE 

Gareth Bale says he can’t shed light on his future as it will cause chaos. No it won’t. Harry Kane’s announcement that this will be his last season at Tottenham caused chaos; Lionel Messi declaring he wanted to leave Barcelona last summer caused chaos. 

Bale’s plans were of interest some time ago. 

As it stands, he’s a player who couldn’t get in Real Madrid’s team, who now doesn’t always make the first XI at Tottenham. One rumour is that he will retire. That’s a shame, given the player he still could be; but a promoter of chaos? Only in Wales. 

HAPPINESS AT WEST HAM, DON’T HOLD YOUR BREATH… 

David Moyes is an optimistic soul. Asked about next season, balancing the needs of the Premier League schedule with West Ham’s first significant campaign in Europe — a minimum six matches — since 1980-81, he begged indulgence.

‘If I was a West Ham fan and David Moyes had come in and saved us from relegation twice then in his first full season qualified for Europe, I’d be hoping you’d give him a bit of breathing space,’ he said. 

Good luck with that. On Sunday, with West Ham needing just a point at home to Southampton to achieve their highest Premier League finish since 1999 and their highest top-flight points total since 1986, there was still a demonstration outside the London Stadium calling on the board to depart.

The same group will take those demands into next season; just as they would have after West Ham lost their first home game of the campaign to Newcastle.

It is easy to forget too that, initially, there was an enormous backlash against the sale of Grady Diangana to West Brom for £18million. By the end of the season, Diangana couldn’t get into West Brom’s team — he made one start after January 2 — while his replacement Vladimir Coufal has been one of West Ham’s best players, at a third of the price. 

Maybe some inside the London Stadium now recognise that a team plays better without such intense pressure; yet that demonstration, however small, against a board that has helped shape a very successful season suggests breathing space might again be hard to come by at West Ham.

David Moyes might find he will not be allowed the kind of pressure-free environment he wants

David Moyes might find he will not be allowed the kind of pressure-free environment he wants

AGUERO DEAL SHOWS BARCA AREN’T SO HIGH AND MIGHTY THESE DAYS 

Barcelona jettisoned Luis Suarez because he was 33 and earned a lot of money. Last week, his 21st league goal of the season helped clinch the title for Atletico Madrid. 

At around the same time, Barcelona were confirming their new signing for next season, striker Sergio Aguero – who will be 33 and, presumably, does not come cheap. Now, Barcelona buy Manchester City’s cast-offs, not the other way around. 

It is a rather beautiful flip, given how the Spanish giants once looked imperiously down their noses at ambitious English clubs.

Luis Suarez (middle) was cast out of Barcelona and helped Atletico Madrid win the LaLiga title

Luis Suarez (middle) was cast out of Barcelona and helped Atletico Madrid win the LaLiga title 

JAPANESE PRESS TELLING THE STORY ON GAMES 

Five million. British publications would kill for the daily reach of The Asahi Shimbun, the second biggest newspaper in Japan. It is powerful enough to be one of the sponsors of the Olympic Games. 

So when, this week, it wrote that the Games should be cancelled, the world should listen. An editorial called on Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga ‘to calmly and objectively assess the situation and decide on the cancellation of the event’.

Recent polls place local opposition to the Games at more than 80 per cent, with leading economist Takahide Kiuchi predicting that the economic hit of further states of emergency if the Games became a super-spreader event would outweigh the cost of cancellation. It is fast becoming a moral question, whether the Games should inflict itself on hosts this reluctant.

WEMBLEY WOULD HAVE SOLVED TICKET RETURNS 

Chelsea have had to return 800 unsold Champions League final tickets, that were part of the £200 subsidised charter packages. 

How many tickets would have gone unclaimed had the match been played at Wembley? None. Still, at least those 2,000 UEFA VIPs are happy on the Douro. 

WHAT A COINCIDENCE FOR UEFA 

UEFA’s next version of financial fair play is likely to look at caps and curbs on transfer fees and wages. What a handy coincidence, just as the big Spanish clubs have run out of money. 

YOU NEED MORE THAN A PARACHUTE 

There was a lot of talk about parachute payments as the season neared its end. The three that went down were going straight up again. The money had corrupted the promotion race. The system was broken. It didn’t turn out that way. It never has turned out that way. 

Since the Premier League began — and we’re talking 28 seasons now — at no time have the three relegated clubs made an immediate return. Demotion hits hard. Clubs have spent a season losing. They have often sold their best players. It is not conducive to winning promotion.

So much so, that the only time in English football history when every relegated club made it straight back to the top division was in 1902-03, with the promotion of Manchester City and Small Heath. As for the Premier League, with Watford and Norwich up automatically, this is only the fifth time in history that even two of three have made it straight back.

The fact that Swansea and Brentford are in the play-off final suggests that there are more important things than parachute payments and good management counts

The fact that Swansea and Brentford are in the play-off final suggests that there are more important things than parachute payments and good management counts 

So parachute payments are not the corrupting force many presume. Largely, they guard against a club needing to conduct a desperate fire sale, and serve as an incentive to compete in the transfer market.

If a club is going to get £42million in the first year of falling out of the division, that is £42m that can be spent when entering the League to create healthier competition. Norwich used that money to stabilise the club financially. They might try to improve the squad this time and stay longer.

Either way, a play-off final between Swansea, who have spent three seasons in the Championship, and Brentford, who have never been a Premier League club, suggests there is more to promotion than parachute payments. Good management counts, too.

The 11 former Premier League teams that spent last season in Leagues One and Two also received parachute money, do not forget. Investments may also go down.

DID HAYES REALLY KEEP PLAYERS HUNGRY? 

It was reported that after Chelsea Women won their title against Reading, manager Emma Hayes collected five medals and gave them to her backroom staff, rather than fringe members of the squad.

This, it was said, showed her ruthless side. She was keeping those players hungry for next season. Then again, considering that Chelsea’s next outing saw them 4-0 down at half-time to Barcelona, maybe it wasn’t such a smart move.

Players talk. Players have friends, even on the team’s fringes. How much behind-the-scenes grumbling might have preceded that night in Gothenburg?

Emma Hayes, seen here with her Manager of the Season award, may be regretting a decision she made prior to losing the Champions League final 4-0 against Barcelona

Emma Hayes, seen here with her Manager of the Season award, may be regretting a decision she made prior to losing the Champions League final 4-0 against Barcelona 

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