As rumours hot up that Mauricio Pochettino is set to become Newcastle United’s next manager, it seems unthinkable now that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would be sacked to make way for the talented Argentinian. But could the coronavirus lockdown have come at the perfect time for the Norwegian?
If you were to run a poll among Manchester United fans now asking them whether Solskjaer or Pochettino should be the Red Devils’ manager next season, there would most likely be a strong majority in favour of Ole. But when The Peoples Person ran that very same poll in the first week of February, just eight matches before lockdown and on the back of a 6-0 thrashing of Tranmere, a 1-0 win against City and a 0-0 home draw with Wolves, a conclusive 61% of 20,000 voters said Poch should replace Ole.
The truth is that if lockdown had taken place back then in February, it seems highly unlikely that United would be allowing the former Spurs man to go to Newcastle unchallenged.
Weeks of standstill coming after an eleven game unbeaten run has simply cemented a sense among United fans, journalists – and possibly players and board members as well – that the Baby-Faced Assassin is the right man for the job. There is excitement about the rebuilding project; everyone sees Solskjaer’s ‘vision’, we approve of the transfer targets being reported and everyone is positive and optimistic about a future that could see Bruno Fernandes lining up alongside the likes of Paul Pogba, Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish.
But let’s go back to the start of February and ask ourselves who was responsible for that turnaround in United’s fortunes? Was it the manager? Or was it the sheer determination, talent and personality of the incoming Bruno Fernandes?
Did Solskjaer suddenly become a better manager?
Many – probably the majority – of fans used to be of the opinion ‘we like Ole, he’s a United man through-and-through, but he’s not tactically strong enough to manage a big club’.
Many believed that the Norwegian had no other ideas except to play counter-attacking football and was unable to put forward a strategy to beat defensive sides.
Were those doubters wrong then, or are we wrong now in feeling confident in Solskjaer’s leadership going forward?
Of course, Fernandes was Solskjaer’s signing, but in January there were even reports from pretty reliable sources – Talk Sport’s Phil Brown and respected Italian journalist Alfredo Pedulla – that Ed Woodward was very close to agreeing a deal with Pochettino to take over from Solskjaer at the end of the season. There were even rumours that Ed Woodward was pursuing Fernandes’ signature on the Argentinian’s request.
A far-fetched rumour, perhaps, but it remains the case that Bruno was Poch’s number one target at Spurs last summer where United were ultimately reported by Fernandes himself to not have been in serious dialogue. No doubt Daniel Levy’s tight-fistedness in not signing the Portuguese playmaker for Pochettino was one of the last nails in the coffin of their relationship.
Manchester United’s performances under Solskjaer have been Jekyll and Hyde in nature. In 2018/19 he started with 14 wins, two draws and one loss from his first 17 games and then managed only two wins from the next twelve. This season he oversaw just four wins from the first 12 games, then the side went on a 13-match unbeaten run (if the Europa League away leg against Astana is discounted, as a youth team was fielded), then we went back to a run with just four wins out of ten before the latest Bruno-inspired 11 match unbeaten streak.
A check on Solskjaer’s career as manager of Molde also reveals a tendency to have rollercoaster runs.
Could it be that Ole will always be a ‘form’ manager who lacks consistency, and that we are forgetting how bad United have been at times in the last 17 months?
Of course, whoever was manager had a big rebuilding job to do and Rome wasn’t built in a day. And the injuries that the Norwegian has had to deal with in his already thin-on-the-ground squad have been horrendous. But no matter how much we like Ole, and how much we want to believe he is the right man for the job, the fact is that we still don’t know whether he is capable or not.
Pochettino and Solskjaer are 48 and 47 years old, respectively. Pochettino, with just two years more managerial experience, has demonstrated skills as a manager that led him from Espanyol to Southampton and from Southampton to Spurs. He then turned Spurs into a top four side, to their first Champions League qualification and to their first Champions League final, and did so with a shoestring transfer budget as all funds were directed to building their new stadium.
Solskjaer, by contrast, did well initially as head coach of Molde FK, winning in his first two seasons as manager, but was relegated with and then sacked from Cardiff City, before returning to Molde where his record was patchy.
Whatever the future brings for both men, the timing of lockdown coinciding with Pochettino’s garden leave from Spurs and Solskjaer’s latest unbeaten run will go down in history as a case of what nearly was, or what could have been.
Only time will tell if that turns out to be fortuitous or not for Manchester United.
United might have to finish their Premier League season at neutral grounds as the authorities try to ensure player safety. How much do you know about those neither-home-nor-away games the Red Devils have played in the past? Take our quiz below to find out.