Manchester United sits fifth in the Premier League. It’s a remarkable, barely comprehensible position given the poverty of much of its football, all the more so given United is somehow only six points off fourth. That's also what is keeping Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in a job. As discontent swirled around Old Trafford after Wednesday’s 2-0 defeat to Burnley, though, this feels like a narrative approaching a climax.
Since Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement in 2013, United’s decisions on when to sack managers seem to have been taken on the basis of Champions League qualification. It was after it had become impossible for United to qualify for the Champions League in 2014 that David Moyes was dismissed; Louis van Gaal went despite winning the FA Cup in 2016 after his side finished fifth, behind Manchester City on goal difference; José Mourinho was sacked in December 2018 when his toxicity became so overwhelming that the top four looked impossible.
This season, thanks to a number of quirks, it is still possible–and given that Frank Lampard’s Chelsea has lost eight games, that six-point gap is certainly not insurmountable. But it looks increasingly unlikely.
This is a strange season. There are nine teams within four points of United, which is three points closer to the relegation zone than it is to third place. Arguments about the quality of the league always end up being largely subjective, but it would seem that the top two and the general "middle-class"–plus Sheffield United–are better than average, while Chelsea, United, Tottenham and Arsenal are all worse. For comparison’s sake, United is on course for 54 points this season. That has never been top-five form and over the past 20 years it would usually leave a club ninth or 10th. Make all the allowances you like for the fact that this is a young squad in a process of transition, but that is nowhere near good enough for a club with the highest wage bill in the Premier League.
Of course there are huge problems at United that go beyond Solskjaer–and it was not insignificant that there were–slightly tepid–signs of support for him at Old Trafford on Wednesday and howls of outrage directed at Ed Woodward and the Glazer family ownership. It’s almost incomprehensible how badly the club has been run, how it could spend almost $800 million net on transfers since Ferguson retired and end up with a squad this bad.
Yes, there have been key injuries to Paul Pogba, Scott McTominay and Marcus Rashford, but a club as big as United shouldn’t be this badly effected by three absentees. Besides, all three injuries come with a story: Pogba clearly wants out anyway, while McTominay and Rashford exacerbated existing conditions by playing. Players play with minor injuries all the time, but it’s hard not to wonder whether Solskjaer, who himself lost almost two years of his career by trying to play through pain and then returning too early, and his invocations of a warrior spirit are helpful.
The lack of football expertise near the top of the club is seen in Woodward’s tendency to blow with the wind. It’s hard to discern any consistent plan. His best decision was to appoint Solskjaer on a temporary basis, a cheery club legend to swill out the negativity of the tail end of the Mourinho regime. That bought him time. But instead he allowed himself to be swayed by a couple of months of decent form and some media coverage suggesting Solskjaer should be given the job on a permanent basis.
He could have waited until the end of the season. He could have assessed his options. He could have gathered two more months of evidence. He could have sounded out, for instance, Mauricio Pochettino. But he gave Solskjaer the job, and since then he has the worst league winning percentage of any United manager since Herbert Bamlett, who led the club to relegation in 1931.
The lurch to youth this season itself has felt reactive, even if it represents, in essence, a sensible policy. It should cut expenditure, and it bought Solskjaer time. But was it thought through? There’s a grave danger the promise at the club is squandered because of a lack of leadership and senior players to bring it through.
Everywhere there are mystifying football decisions. It’s understandable that Woodward should want to reduce the spending, but, if recent reports are true, United appears to have missed out on Erling Braut Haaland–perhaps the most exciting young striker since Brazil's Ronaldo–for a fee of around $25 million because it was unwilling to pay the necessary fees to his agent and father.
But for all the background issues, Solskjaer is also a problem. Attractive as the dream of the legend restoring the club is, there is simply no evidence of any progression. He can set up a defense and use the pace of Rashford, Anthony Martial and Daniel James on the counter, which is what brought the wins over Tottenham and Manchester City in December. He can come up with clever shape-based plans, such as the false nine that upset Tottenham last year or the back three that interrupted Liverpool’s flow on Sunday, but there are other major failings.
The inability to construct the attacking moves that allow a side to break down deep-lying opposing defenses was seen again against Burnley. No side has conceded more on corners in the Premier League this season than United’s eight goals, while it is conceding three times as many chances to counters as it did under Mourinho. Both metrics are red flags for something going wrong on the training pitch.
Pochettino is available. Increasingly, he feels like an opportunity United cannot afford to miss, but it’s not clear who at the club has the footballing expertise to make that decision.