Manchester United’s defeat at the hands of Watford at Vicarage Road on Sunday simply underlines a trend that has become all too familiar under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s management – that the team plays well against big clubs and poorly against the league’s lower ranked sides.
Many possible reasons for this strange pattern have been discussed in the media and social media. It is down to a lack of creativity in midfield during Paul Pogba’s lay-off; it is because the players are overconfident, lazy and unfocussed; and the most popular of all – that Solskjaer’s tactics are inefficient against defensive sides.
But does it perhaps go deeper than that? Is it something about the Norwegian’s very nature, his personality, that shapes his destiny and with it, those of the players he manages?
Olé achieved legendary status among United fans as a player. The huge ‘2Olegend’ banner permanently draped from the Old Trafford stands is a testament to that. Of course, the Norwegian scored the dramatic injury time winner in the 1999 Champions League final against Bayern Munich, and in so doing, secured the historic treble for the Red Devils.
Solskjaer the saviour; the rescuer.
The baby-faced assassin played 339 games for the Reds and scored 119 goals. Of those 339 games, 136 were substitute appearances in which he scored 28 of his goals. If we estimate that he would have played an average of 80 minutes when starting and 15 when coming on as sub, then that equates to a goal every 178 minutes when starting versus one every 73 minutes as sub.
The point: Ole was a better player coming off the bench. The baby faced assassin was a rescuer. When he got the opportunity to lead from the front, to build a game from the first whistle, he was not as effective.
The initiator and the responder are two basic personality types. The initiator is creative and innovative and forges new ideas. The responder is reactive, a firefighter, who deals with situations as they arrive. A counter-attacker, if you like. Solskjaer, both as a player and a manager, has proven to be a responder.
When United’s backs are against the wall, as they are when facing the likes of Liverpool, Man City or PSG, or even when Solskjaer himself is facing the sack, Olé will come into his own. When United need to set the tone, set the pace and be creative, he will be lost.
This may perhaps be the insurmountable problem with Solskjaer’s management of Manchester United: no matter who is signed to strengthen the team, no matter how the tactics are adjusted and no matter how well the players are motivated, the leader is a responder, and not an initiator, and will only ever excel when on the counter-attack.