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Manchester United

Mourinho, Woodward and Man Utd's behind-the-scenes issues keeping Solskjaer in a job

09:15 GMT 08/11/2021
Jose Mourinho Ole Gunnar Solskjaer Ed Woodward Manchester United GFX
The Red Devils may have won just four of their last 12 matches, but their manager looks likely to survive due to off-field problems at Old Trafford

Two weeks after that 5-0 hammering at the hands of Liverpool and here we are, still talking about the same problems at Manchester United. 

Three Premier League managers have been sacked since that dark day for the Red Devils, and yet none go by the name of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

On Sunday, Dean Smith joined Nuno Espirito Santo and Daniel Farke in being dismissed,  as clubs continue to act when it becomes clear that change is required in the dugout to alter the team's fortunes.

At United, though, there does not seem to be the same decisiveness that a growing group of supporters are calling for when it comes to Solskjaer's future.

Any hope that Saturday's derby with Manchester City would not be as bad as the Liverpool debacle quickly evaporated after Eric Bailly put through his own net after seven minutes, and though the scoreline was not as emphatic as a fortnight previous, the embarrassment for United was just as high.

Solskjaer's side had just four touches in the opposition box and completed only half as many passes as their visitors from across town, holding possession for just 33 per cent of the game.

For the second home match running, fans of their biggest rivals spent much of the second half chanting ironically for United's under-siege manager to stay, calling on Solskjaer to remain in charge for "five more years".

Does it get much worse than this?

And yet the message from within Old Trafford is that nothing has changed in terms of Solskjaer remaining in his job. There is an acceptance that a lot needs to be done to turn the current malaise around, but switching the head coach is not considered to be on the list of priorities.

Given United have lost three of their four Premier League matches since the international break in embarrassing fashion, and required late interventions on two occasions from Cristiano Ronaldo to keep them on track in the Champions League over the same period, it is clear that the current combination of players and management team is almost incompatible.

Sources tell  Goal  that senior players questioned the team's performance in the aftermath of the City defeat, and Solskjaer was shocked to hear his captain, Harry Maguire, claim that the team was "lacking belief" during a post-match interview.

Regardless, if Solskjaer is set to remain in charge for United's trip to face Watford on November 20, then fans will demand United have a good reason for that to be the case.

But if the theories over their decision-making are anything to go by, then those supporters who want a change are likely to be disappointed.

Perhaps the most eye-catching excuse that is being used for the United board not replacing Solskjaer is that they remain scarred by the appointments, and subsequent failures, of previous serial winners Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho.

"There are better managers, of course, there are better managers in terms of credentials and on paper, but the confusion that exists at this club at this moment in time is they’ve gone for two managers previously that have world-class credentials," explained former United captain Gary Neville to  Sky Sports  on Saturday.

"I think that’s where the confusion or the hesitancy comes from the board, that they’ve been down this route of bringing in a Mourinho before so they wouldn’t bring in a [Antonio] Conte because they’d be burned by that."

Neville, while he has been criticised in some quarters for not calling for his friend Solskjaer to be fired, is right. Mourinho, in particular, left United a fractious club that needed its culture rebuilding, and Solskjaer's greatest success has been to do that by harking back to the club's glory days while rejuvenating the squad with young talent.

It is for that reason that Conte, despite being interested in taking the job, was never approached by United two weeks ago when many felt Solskjaer's time was up following the Liverpool defeat.

The United hierarchy felt that the now-Tottenham boss would go against the culture they had spent so much time rebooting, concerned that the Italian would cause the same issues as Mourinho did during his tenure within the dressing room.

However, as Jamie Carragher - the unlikely public face of the growing '#OleOut' online movement - wrote on Twitter over the weekend: "What a load of nonsense it is that because Jose/LVG failed at Man United they shouldn’t look for a better manager."

That is simplifying it somewhat, but there will certainly be questions asked of those in charge at United if Conte goes onto be a success in north London while the Red Devils either stumble on with Solskjaer or struggle in scrabbling around for a replacement.

One further theory posited by Neville was that Ed Woodward's decision to leave the club at the end of 2021 was holding up any decision on Solskjaer's fate.

"The situation at United is made more complicated with Ed Woodward leaving in weeks,” Neville tweeted on Sunday. “He gave OGS (Solskjaer) a three-year contract months ago and he won’t want his final act to be sacking a manager.

"However, he knows an incoming CEO could throw him overboard by doing just that and blaming him!”

Woodward announced in April that he would be stepping down from his role as United's executive vice-chairman, but has remained in post ever since before his departure is confirmed at the turn of the year.

And while Neville certainly has a point that it would reflect badly on the club to sack a manager mere months after backing them with a new contract, Woodward is not the sole decision maker when it comes to hiring and firing coaches.

The morning after the Liverpool defeat, for example, Woodward was on a call with co-chairmain Joel Glazer and group managing director Richard Arnold. Sources say that it was a routine chat between the three power brokers, with the consensus being that Solskjaer would remain in charge.

“I’ve had communication with the board and I don’t expect them to come and give me assurances,” Solskjaer said 10 days ago. There is no wonder, then, that the Norwegian appeared relaxed about his position despite the City loss, and there has, to this point, been no suggestion that he will be on his way this time either.

The situation is further complicated by Conte, the outstanding available candidate to replace Solskjaer in terms of CV, now being back in work, meaning all the viable candidates to potentially come in will either be expensive to pry from their current jobs or, in the case of Zinedine Zidane, are not interested in taking on what has turned into a poisoned chalice of a role.

“I don't think there is any chance there will a decision [on the manager] during this season, unless it gets so bad, and it is getting to the point where it is so bad,” Neville said on Saturday.

“Nobody has expected this. Nobody would have expected United would sink so low at this point in the season. I think he has a few weeks to sort it out."

With crucial games against Villarreal, Chelsea and Arsenal to follow the Watford match after the international break, those few weeks are unlikely to be straightforward.

But while United continue to be haunted by the ghost of coaches past and with the boardroom in a state of flux, Solskjaer will - rightly or wrongly - continue to serve a stay of execution.