Football fans may dish out a lot of criticism, but they themselves come in for a lot as well. Manchester United fans are often labelled ‘fickle’ and ‘plastic’, sometimes even by other United fans, because they change their minds very quickly about a player or a manager. One minute they love him, the next they hate him.
It’s said to be impatient and immature. It’s said to be ignorant of the ways of football. It’s said that such fans are not true fans and should stick behind their team no matter what.
Often that may be true of many fans. But sometimes, the fact is that the situation just is what it is. Bloody confusing.
After 100 games in charge of Manchester United, the fact is that at times Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has looked like the closest thing to Sir Alex Ferguson we have had since the great man stood down. At other times, he has looked like the worst manager in the Premier League.
That stark Jekyll and Hyde contrast has never been more evident than this week, when we witnessed one of the most brilliant home European performances, arguably in the club’s history, as United swept aside Bundesliga leaders RB Leipzig in an impressive, creative and swashbuckling performance. Four days later, a side devoid of ideas, discipline and spirit lost on the same pitch to a tame Arsenal side who were there for the taking.
Solskjaer was left with a squad in a mess, with too many average defenders, not enough midfielders and strikers and a long list of injuries. True. Solskjaer has been let down in the transfer market at each opportunity, when the club’s negotiators have failed to get players on his list, or got them way later than they should have, or got players who were not on his list. True. Solskjaer has had to cope with the effects of Covid-19 and an empty Old Trafford, true. A manager must be given time to stamp his mark on a side. Successful clubs do not have revolving door management. True.
And yet after 100 games, some other things are true. Solskjaer’s sides only seem to be able to win when their (or his) backs are to the wall. They lack consistency. His team selections and substitutions can border on the inexplicable. He overplays certain players and underplays others. He fails to bring out the best in many players.
The midfield diamond that worked so well against Leipzig on Wednesday failed so horribly yesterday against Arsenal. People often get into debates about whether something like that was Solskjaer’s fault or whether the players just did not perform. But at some point you have to say, when the players regularly do not perform, then that must be Solskjaer’s fault.
The Norwegian’s win percentage after 100 games as United manager has been compared to that of Sir Alex Ferguson and others. Solskjaer’s win percentage is 55, compared to Ferguson’s 48 and Matt Busby’s 52. José Mourinho has the highest post-war average at 62.
But the loss percentage does not look so good for Solskjaer. He has lost 24% of his games, the biggest number of defeats of any post-war United boss after 100 games except Dave Sexton.
Solskjaer may be learning on the job. He may have the potential to be a great manager. The problem is that nobody knows. He has been let down by the board this summer and he will be scapegoated when United struggle and most fans would agree that there is far more evidence that the man who failed him, Ed Woodward, should be sacked than there is that Solskjaer should be.
But look again, man-for-man, at the players United put on the pitch yesterday compared to those Arsenal fielded. In terms of ability, there were few positions in which on paper, the Arsenal man should have been better than the United man. So the excuse of lack of support in the transfer market can only be used up to a point.
Solskjaer is a United man, he is a likeable character who is clearly loyal and a club legend. That has bought him some time. But these inconsistencies seem like they will never go away and that is a problem.
This 47-year-old learning on the job yesterday was beaten at home by a 38-year-old learning on the job. He is five years older than Frank Lampard, whose Chelsea side lie five points ahead of United already. He is a year older than Nuno Espirito Santo, whose Wolves side are six points ahead.
United lie in 15th place in the Premier League, a point below David Moyes’s West Ham. They have no injuries to key players, and have lost three times at home in four Premier League games this season. In none of Sir Alex Ferguson’s last 10 seasons at Old Trafford did the team lose more than three Premier League games at home throughout the entire campaign.
No doubt next week United will put Basaksehir and Everton to the sword and I will be singing Solskjaer’s praises again. He has a habit of making a fan feel fickle that way. But those of us going through this rollercoaster of emotions are not plastic, we are true, lifelong supporters who want so much for Solskjaer to succeed and yet have the rug ripped out from under us every time we think it’s finally happening.
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