Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United: Trying to make sense of it
There was something truly startling about the post-match graphic detailing Manchester United’s worst home losses following Sunday’s 5-0 humiliation by Liverpool at Old Trafford.
Among the half-dozen or so blowouts listed, two were overseen in the last 13 months by one manager. The manager, of course, is Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and at many clubs that tidbit alone might’ve tipped the scales in favor of their sacking.
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And so it seems to go with Solskjaer, who is apparently set to remain in charge of one of the world’s biggest clubs at least through this weekend’s match against Nuno Espirito Santo and Tottenham Hotspur.
It’s been 1,039 days since the Norwegian was tabbed to take the reins from Jose Mourinho on an interim basis, and you’d imagine the contract said, “Talk about the legacy of the club as often as possible” given the previous several dozen press conferences in which tradition may well be Solskjaer’s favorite tactic.
And, no, tradition isn’t an actual tactic.
Solskjaer’s interim wonder spell
Solskjaer’s performance as interim boss, for what it’s worth, absolutely merited a chance to do the thing over a longer term, as United started his tenure with eight-straight wins including away defeats of Spurs and Arsenal.
A draw to Burnley stopped that, but United won six of its next eight, the only loss versus PSG to go with a draw with Liverpool and wins over Chelsea and PSG.
That’s obviously very, very good.
United lost its next two matches before Solskjaer had the interim tag taken off of his title. The Red Devils had claimed 2.32 points-per-game over his 19 matches, the anti-Mourinho staking his claim to the throne.
There have been 145 matches since, and honestly it’s very difficult to argue that that long-term label has been worth it. Solskjaer’s claimed 1.81 points per game since his permanent appointment.
United’s next stretch was bad, considering the club’s status, even excluding the final two losses before the removed interim label.
The Red Devils won twice, drew twice, and lost six times, finishing five points off the top four with 66 points. They lost at Wolves and Everton, drew Huddersfield away, and lost to Cardiff 2-0 with their top-four dreams already dashed.
They were sixth when he took over for Mourinho. They finished sixth five months later. Okay?
First full year -- 2019-20
It was a tough run-in after a long year at Old Trafford and there was reason for promise as the club embarked on a new season.
In came Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, and Daniel James, while Romelu Lukaku, Ander Herrera, Ashley Young, and Chris Smalling were among those to skip town (Only Smalling’s departure was a loan).
The vibes were great when a Maguire-led United smashed Chelsea 4-0 to start the season, but disappointment quickly reared its head with a draw against Wolves, loss to Palace, and draw with Southampton.
The Red Devils had two wins and sat 14th after a late October home loss to Liverpool, hit ninth by the start of December, and defeats of Spurs and Man City four days apart meant fifth-place seating ahead of the Festive Fixtures.
A miserable January saw losses to Arsenal, Liverpool, and Burnley with a blowout of Norwich City sprinkled in, but Solskjaer righted the ship and United did not lose again in PL play leading into the pandemic break and then for all of Project Restart.
By righting the ship, we mean signing Bruno Fernandes. The Portuguese wizard arrived for the next game, a draw with Wolves, and United put together nine wins and five draws with Fernandes getting eight goals and seven assists in that stretch.
United went to the Europa League semifinals by outlasting Club Brugge, LASK, and Copenhagen before losing to Sevilla.
And so United went from sixth in Solskjaer’s half-season to third in his first full season, and we’d posit that it’s because of Bruno Fernandes.
Second full year -- 2020-21
In dire need of a central midfielder to do the busy work behind Bruno Fernandes and in significant need of a center back to pair with Maguire -- although not off the field -- United bought ... two teenage forwards, fullback Alex Telles, and free agent Edinson Cavani.
The purchase of Donny van de Beek half-fit a need but it doesn’t look like Solskjaer had any interest in the player, who has not been developed any further under his eye. In addition to not signing a CB, the club sold four defenders: Chris Smalling, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Marcus Rojo, and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson.
How’d it go?
Smashed 6-1 by Spurs at Old Trafford, the good vibes returned thanks to a defeat of PSG, draw with Chelsea, and hammering of Leipzig.
Those Champions League wins became the prelude to a collapse in the group stage, a 3W-1L start continued with losses to PSG and Leipzig.
The ensuing Europa League run, however, was impressive, as United had no problem with Real Sociedad, won away at AC Milan to make the quarterfinals, then eased past Granada and Roma before they falling to Villarreal in the final.
Back to the PL, United again sat shockingly low on the table early in the season (15th on Nov. 1) but went on a huge unbeaten run that saw the first -- first! -- by January 12.
That winning streak ended January 27 to Sheffield United -- at Old Trafford! -- and United sat second the rest of the season, finishing 12 points back of Man City and eight points clear of fifth.
Even though they fell out of first and lost to their neighbors, second-place was nice.
Start of third (possible) full year -- 2021 -22
Look, there just aren’t excuses or scapegoats, even if Ed Woodward looks set to stay longer despite his intended departure following the European Super League mess (‘member that?).
The club lost or sold no one of note to its short-term success and added Raphael Varane, Jadon Sancho, and Cristiano Ronaldo. We suppose it’s a victory selling Daniel James for a $13 million profit.
But Sancho, like Van de Beek, has not done much at Old Trafford and it’s difficult to blame one of the only players in the world to join Lionel Messi as a double-digit goal and assist man last season.
United’s season has been bad. It’s as simple as that. In a year with three elite transfers, Manchester United -- say their name again, Manchester United -- has six wins, two draws, and five losses.
It’s just not good enough so....
What do the stats say?
They say that United is shooting more, having more of the ball, but allowing more and more chances while continuing to cheat expected goals scored and conceded.
Goals in open play (Understat)
2019-20: 47-21 (xG 46-27)
2020-21: 54-26 (xG 49-32)
2021-22: 16-12 (xG 10-12)
xG vs. xG conceded (Understat)
Shots per game
2019-20: 14.3 (fourth)
2020-21: 13.8 (fourth)
2021-22: 16.7 (third)
Shots allowed per game
2019-20: 10.3 (fifth)
2020-21: 11.3 (eighth)
2021-22: 13.1 (10th)
Possession per game
2019-20: 54.6% (fifth)
2020-21: 54.5% (fifth)
2021-22: 56.4% (fourth)
To have more of the ball than any time in a three-year span, and to be getting off more shots might be enough to convince an ardent Solskjaer supporter that he’s just unlucky but look at those xG numbers.
United’s been getting the better of XG for three seasons -- especially in open play -- and this year that merely means staying above mid-table.
The Cristiano Ronaldo problem
So is Cristiano Ronaldo a problem?
One of the best players to ever put on boots, Ronaldo has already come up for some big goals that have -- perhaps -- allowed Solskjaer to get to late October, but even the Portuguese says this team is about potential more than output right now.
Despite its bevy of playmakers, the stats say that United is struggling to get Ronaldo the ball in dangerous places.
“CR7" has a small sample size so far -- 483 Premier League minutes -- but his shots per game gave sunk from 5.1 to 4.2, his key passes from 1.1 to 0.7, and dribbles completed from 1.8 to 0.3.
He’s also, for what it’s worth being fouled only 0.5 times per game, which perhaps is more of an indictment on the referees in Italy than anything else.
Defending has never been much of a Ronaldo thing, but he’s yet to register a tackle in the Premier League since returning to Man United.
He’s the 101st-ranked PL player by SofaScore this season, his rating the same as Jesse Lingard, Douglas Luiz, and Demarai Gray. That’s not terrible, especially at age 36, but consider that the same site had him the fifth-best player in Serie A last season, first in 2019-20, and third in 2018-19.
So you either have to argue that Ronaldo is washed-up -- unlikely -- is being poorly used, or both. It doesn’t help that United’s all-timer of a manager, is talking to MMA fighters about using the 36-year-old every time out, but hey, such is the life of a club still leaning on that legend for guidance.
Conclusion: Consult Occam’s razor
Is it easier to make the case that Solskjaer is a part of the solution than a part of the problem? No, not it isn’t.
But United has been soundly beaten by Liverpool and Leicester City this season, also losing at home to Aston Villa. There is not a signature win over a good team that doesn’t involve comeback heroics in the Champions League, and they went one-and-done in the League Cup when their No. 2 team went against West Ham’s second-choice squad.
Consider that all this is happening while Liverpool and Man City have each dropped points thrice and Tottenham, Arsenal, Leicester City, and Everton have all struggled to open the season.
United sits seventh with 14 points and has only won four times. Four of their next six league matches are against Spurs, Man City, Chelsea, and Arsenal.
By sticking with Solskjaer, they are essentially betting their season on him. giving wins to City or Chelsea would put United three wins or more behind the leaders. Failing to beat Arsenal or Spurs means a likely place behind either of them.
The bet just doesn’t seem wise. You can only fail the eye test so many times before the doctor takes away your driver’s license (Do doctors have that responsibility? I digress).
He seems like a nice guy, so I’d be happy to be wrong. I just can’t imagine I am, if the Man United standard is still silverware-based.