A key question arising from Manchester United’s listless 1-0 defeat in the Champions League quarter-final first leg against Barcelona on Wednesday is what – if anything – would Jose Mourinho have done differently to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had he still been in charge?
Or – to expand that a little further – what could Jose Mourinho have done differently had he still been in charge? The answer to both queries is probably nothing.
Barcelona are just about favourites for the Champions League but with justifiable reason. They’ve got Lionel Messi for one thing and have dependable players in most positions, as well as the bench.
United – home or away – would be considered second best to Barca in any circumstance. In that regard, Solskjaer is extremely limited in what kind of game plan he can put together.
He – rightly – sees himself as custodian of the Ferguson flame. Beside him he’s got long-time Ferguson lieutenant Mike Phelan and plenty of other coaches who were working at Old Trafford in the Sir Alex days.
Solskjaer makes all the right noises about the United way and how they should be bowing down for no team. Whoever the opposition is, Solskjaer says, his United would go out like Ferguson’s United to try to win the game.
That’s what the crowd want to hear; it delivers them relief from what they saw as the gaslighting and monotony of the end-days of Mourinho.
But – as seen against Barca – it’s not borne out in practice. There were two centre-backs, three full-backs and two defensive midfielders on the field in midweek. Hardly swashbuckling. And still the team did not even achieve what they were sent out to do, namely earn a clean sheet.
But it is becoming increasingly evident that Solskjaer’s United play the same way against everyone. They are not, however, channelling some mythical force from the Ferguson era. They are playing percentage football, indiscriminately, against all teams; from Watford and Wolves to Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona.
The difference between Solskjaer and Mourinho is Solskjaer is allowed to get away with it. One, because he’s a club legend, having won them the Champions League in 1999 and two, because he’s been exceptionally lucky in the early part of his United managerial career.
Now that the luck has evaporated, United are regressing to pretty much what they were under Jose.
They have lost four games out of their last five. They have gone out of the FA Cup and slipped right out of contention for a return to the Champions League through their league position. They are on the brink of going out of Europe, with a battering at Camp Nou to look forward to.
Their season, in actual fact, is more or less where you’d expect it to be, whether Mourinho or Solskjaer were in charge.
One element perhaps sustaining Solskjaer through this results famine is the win against PSG achieved in the last round of the Champions League.
That victory – impressive in the sense that they overturned a 2-0 first-leg lead and won it right at the death – is seen as a hark-back to a time when United did it for fun under Ferguson. It got to the very root of the United identity and produced the magic once taken for granted.
What is overlooked is how fortunate United were. Not only were PSG without Neymar – which is like Barca missing Messi – but they either scored or won a penalty with every shot they had on goal.
The result was so beautiful – in a United sense – that Ed Woodward immediately furnished Ole Gunnar with a three-year contract. There is no question that he improved the mood at the training ground and gave everyone belief but it was a remarkably short-sighted decision, based on the flimsiest of evidence.
Currently, United are no better than a 50-50 shot to win any game they go into. It’s because they are in hock to the goalkeeping skills of David de Gea at one end and reliant on an unsustainable output in front of goal at the other.
That is scarcely different to the Mourinho days. Witness the heroics De Gea performed in the big game against Spurs at Wembley early in the Solskjaer reign. He made a career-high number of saves that afternoon in a display not dissimilar to the one the season before against Arsenal at the Emirates.
There was no grand plan behind the United win on either of those days. It was all down to De Gea and the hope of snaffling a goal on the break.
Furthermore, you could easily compare the win in Paris to the one Mourinho earned in the group stage against Juventus earlier this season. United were out-passed, outplayed but somehow came up with the result at the death.
They played that way against Wolves recently – where they lost – and against Watford – where they happened to win. Results are up and down but the performances have evened out. And it’s not good news.
Solskjaer has not yet come up with a way of taming opposition attacks and quite often results are decided by the equivalent of the flip of a coin. Either the ball goes in or it doesn’t. And, as proven against Arsenal, if De Gea slips up – as all goalkeepers are entitled to do – United are in big, big trouble.
United fans – and Woodward – were lured into a false sense of security due to the consistency of Solskjaer’s early results. But the honeymoon is well and truly over.
Some time between now and the start of next season, everyone will be confronted with the bleakness of the situation: Manchester United have just signed Molde’s manager and are expecting him to carry out a comprehensive overhaul in one of the club’s most important-ever transfer windows.
Barcelona have already signed Frenkie de Jong. Real Madrid have signed Eder Militao. Bayern Munich have signed Lucas Hernandez. These super clubs are not hanging around. They are repairing the defects in their squad.
United, on the other hand, are doing even worse than standing still. They are about to lose Ander Herrera – arguably their most successful signing since Ferguson left – on a free transfer and could see their only two world=class performers in De Gea and Paul Pogba follow him out the door.
Moreover, the contract they entered into with Alexis Sanchez – worth over half a million pounds every week – is not only a drain on resources but will be brought up in any negotiation or renegotiation they have. Why would Marcus Rashford, for example, undersell himself when he knows what Alexis 'earns'?
It comes to down to a lack of structure and a lack of oversight. Solskjaer is in charge of a squad with three managers’ signings in it as well as a few left over from Ferguson’s day. He’ll need his own players too, sooner or later.
He gave United a boost at a crucial time, but the effect is wearing off. Instead of shaking his hand and thanking him for a job well done, they are now attempting to stretch out that dead-cat bounce over the long term. It won’t work.
Is there any difference between having Jose park the bus or having Ole at the wheel of it? Not really. United are still all over the place; a good run of results was not enough to cover that up.