What is Ole Gunnar Solskjaer actually trying to make?
Ask any three Manchester United fans and it’s reasonable to expect at least three different analogies.
To some, it’s one of those fuzzy 3D pictures. They’ll insist that, if you cross your eyes to the point of irreversible astigmatism, it’s possible to see a shape emerging.
‘It’s a cruise ship! Actually, maybe it’s a monkey. Yes, it’s a monkey! Or a car…It’s coming…it’s coming…’
And oh, how the doubters will be forced to eat humble pie when its true majesty is finally revealed.
To others, he’s no more than a mediocre chef who failed upwards until he landed in a Michelin starred restaurant. He’s in there now, happily preparing food with no expense spared but lacking the ability to make a dish worthy of the ingredients.
If you gave an infinite number of Solskjaers an endlessly stocked kitchen, one of them would create the finest meal ever prepared eventually.
Then there’s the stoic non-believers – the Oltheists. To this growing group, he’s not even that good. He’s the, ‘started cooking in lockdown’ novice being ripped apart by MasterChef judges.
He’s been doomed to fail since day one.
And when it comes, his inevitable demise will be met with a self-righteous ‘Told you so’.
So what is he making?
Firstly, Solskjaer’s tenure hasn’t been without positives. He’s got a lot right, even if some of his early accomplishments have been swallowed up by the toxic cloud currently hovering over Old Trafford.
His initial remit was simply to pump stomachs and hand out toothbrushes after the variations on the turd sandwich presented by everyone from David Moyes to Jose Mourinho.
And he did that. He spoke warmly about the club’s principles and gave United fans hope that they could combine the best of their glorious past with the promise of the future.
He got the players onside, made them look like they cared and restored some pride. The giddy rush of the Norwegian’s first nine games, culminating in that memorable win at PSG felt like a restoration.
It also appeared that he knew the type of player he needed, cutting ties with supposedly difficult characters like Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku.
And in the rapid counter-attack, he had a style. It wasn’t expansive but it was effective, sometimes exhilarating and made the most of the resources available.
Even so, from the permanent contract onward – arriving as it did in the middle of his first sticky patch – there were question marks among the fan base.
Would he be able to move beyond the counter and develop a Plan B? Could he pin teams back and overwhelm like the best teams in England and Europe? Could he attract a better quality of player and, if he did, how would be use them?
Three years in and, despite vastly improving the quality of player, he looks further away from a functioning team than ever. The magic eye shows nothing more than a snowstorm.
It’s worth noting that Sir Alex Ferguson himself was never really regarded as a tactical purist or innovator, but he plugged the gaps by hiring people who would compliment his legendary man-management.
He delegated to high quality coaches like Carlos Queiroz and Rene Meulensteen and, by his own admission, trusted them with the small details.
If that meant breaking ties with trusted long-term stalwarts like Archie Knox, so be it. All that mattered was the continued success of the club.
The irony here is that Solskjaer has partly damned himself by invoking the ‘United DNA’. If he is truly intent on channelling his inner-Fergie, he’ll need to do more than whip out platitudes about youth, fight and the United Way.
He needs to ask difficult questions about how, almost three years into his tenure, his side still doesn’t have an identity. He needs to be utterly ruthless.
There are no partnerships in this side. There’s no cohesion, no structure. The attackers don’t press, the midfield is non-existent and the defence is totally exposed. Nothing is working.
Against Leicester the Red Devils were no better or worse than any other game this season. The difference is that the home side had the quality and endeavour to exploit all the flaws.
The away side were a chaotic mess, their forwards pressing in patches, while the Foxes hunted in packs for the full 90-odd minutes.
United’s attacking rhythm was again absent, the midfield a void. The defence wilted in the face of Leicester’s determination to take the points.
And yet the visitors had moments of brilliance, notably from Mason Greenwood, who scored a thunderbolt to give his side the lead. A savvier side would’ve held their shape, dug in and contained, looking for a knockout counter.
Instead the bewildering lack of structure and organisation meant that any Leicester attack threatened a goal. They got at Solskjaer’s back four with depressing ease and fully deserved their resounding victory.
United’s coaching staff now need to go into preservation mode and contemplate moving away from the revolving galaxy of stars up front.
Defensive solidity needs to take priority, even if that means putting high-profile noses out of joint. If that means thinking the unthinkable and taking out Cristiano Ronaldo or Pogba to find a settled structure, so be it.
And, if the current coaches aren’t equipped to fulfil the task of making this team hard to beat, they need to be cut loose. There’s no point having a glut of World Class stars if the backroom is, at best, Division 1 standard.
So what is he making? Well, every time the board has given Solskjaer a World Class star, the stakes have been raised.
You don’t need to squint to see that each recruit has raised expectations to a level that seems to exceed the manager’s talents.
If he doesn’t make the big decisions – and quickly – it’ll turn out he spent the last three years building his own guillotine.