The end of the road for Solskjaer? Man Utd's endless pursuit of progress going nowhere

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer Ed Woodward Manchester United GFX
From a midweek demolition of RB Leipzig to a drab weekend defeat to Arsenal, the Red Devils are wildly inconsistent and showing few signs of progress

For over a year, fans and pundits have been waiting for Manchester United to turn a corner under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

But after another week of infuriating inconsistency it is becoming increasingly clear that progress can only be made without the Norwegian at the helm.

United have made their worst start to a season since the David Moyes debacle, when they eventually finished seventh just 12 months on from winning the title.

They have, meanwhile, failed to win their opening four games at Old Trafford for the first time since 1972-73, when they finished 18th.

Surely now we have reached the endgame. And if not now, then when?

After the optimism of the Red Devils' 5-0 win over RB Leipzig in the Champions League was eviscerated by a tactically-inept performance against Arsenal in the Premier League, the club - in this writer's opinion - needs to realise Solskjaer is the wrong man for the job.

If they do not, then what exactly will it take?

Solskjaer’s United are exactly the same team as they were a year ago: a good counterattacking side capable of winning the biggest games, but lacking the tactical coaching required to take the next step.

Albert Einstein’s dictum on insanity – doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results – comes to mind, and that ‘same thing’ extends from Solskjaer’s style of management to Ed Woodward’s belief in it to the media’s assumption that progress is possible.

Nothing has changed, and nothing is changing. That is the very definition of stagnation, and since a club of United’s wealth are insulated from falling too far, stasis is not just failure. It is rock bottom.

To still believe in Solskjaer - something Goal can confirm the club's board still do - is to ignore overwhelming evidence, albeit evidence that has been intriguingly well-hidden over these last few months.

The last week has perfectly encapsulated why he has been able to offer the illusion of progress and remain in his job for so long.

Solskjaer is almost unique in his ability to always appear on the verge of a major breakthrough, because no other manager of a super-club is so good at winning the glamour ties and so poor at everything else.

By subverting the usual measures of progress we are tricked into misreading the signs. But nobody should be fooled anymore. It has become easy to see what is tactically wrong with this team.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer Man Utd vs Arsenal Premier League 2020-21

The ever-widening financial gap in the modern game has made football distinctly territorial, meaning the elite manager needs to coach highly-structured attacking patterns (repeat set moves in training until they become muscle memory) to pull a compact defence out of shape.

These are known as ‘automatisms’, and are the vital components that define the methods of Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola, and Mauricio Pochettino.

Solskjaer does not and cannot coach to this level, instead relying on an out-dated method of improvisational attacks, which explains why his players are so vulnerable to changes in confidence - and why they only look good when facing dominant opponents.

In these scenarios, there is plenty of space on the counter for Solskjaer’s forwards to be creative. But as soon as United face a low block, and those spaces disappear, they do not have coaching to fall back on.

Instead they drift and waft, passing sideways then shimmying across, the equivalent of a novice chess player incapable of thinking even one step ahead.

This explains their 5-0 victory over an expansive Leipzig side willing to let Solskjaer deploy a low-block and quick counters while also explaining their lifeless defeat against a more savvy Arsenal side, whose organised shape and press cut off United’s attackers.

Structured tactical coaching trumps improvisation every time. But it isn’t all about ‘automatisms’. Solskjaer’s deficiencies run deeper.

The forensic detail of the modern elite tactician extends to every phase of play, every scenario, and every zone of the pitch. Moves, links, pressing shapes, and positions are coached to a degree of specificity that goes far beyond the old-school ‘Football Manager’ approach of picking a formation, organising a back four, and vaguely labelling a style of play.

Yet that is how Solskjaer appears to approach management, and while this was already clear from his battle plans over the last 18 months, it has moved into sharp focus over the last week thanks to his deployment of a 4-4-2 diamond.

Man Utd vs Arsenal GFX

Perhaps United spent weeks working on the system before unleashing it on Leipzig. But judging by Solskjaer’s decision to stick with it for the next game, despite Arsenal playing a completely different style of football, it is fair to assume it was not as well thought out as it may have first appeared.

Unsurprisingly, Arteta hit United in all the areas of weakness that their Leipzig performance had uncovered.

Arsenal's wing-backs dipped into the half-spaces to get on the ball in the gaps either side of United’s midfield diamond, while a man-to-man pressing system saw Thomas Partey and Mohamed Elneny nullify Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes respectively. This led to a dominant first-half performance that ought to have seen the Gunners secure a half-time lead.

Solskjaer shifted to a 4-2-3-1 after the break, and although this did halt Arsenal’s wing-backs, it was, once again, unrehearsed and off-the-cuff, with Pogba looking clumsy on the left wing and the new midfield shape too disconnected to turn the tide.

In the post-match interviews nobody seemed to have the answers. Pogba said he could not explain the differences between the Leipzig performance and the Arsenal one. Solskjaer told Match of the Day, “That's football for you. It goes up and down.”

It does under this management, yes. But under an elite tactician, under someone capable of coaching detailed attacking moves, United would find more consistency.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer Manchester United GFX

When the wheels came off for Jose Mourinho – who started his car-crash 2018-19 season with better results than the current team are managing – United were expected to be challenging for the title.

It is strange that under Solskjaer those expectations have been dramatically lowered; poor performances leading to respite for the manager rather than intensifying accusations against him.

United ought to be in the running for the title, and yet seemingly a top-four finish would be acceptable to the club hierarchy. At the moment, they are some way off even that level.

After Wednesday’s win, some in the media suggested Solskjaer’s United had finally turned a corner. Four days later and the manner of their defeat to Arsenal made it the starkest example yet of how Solskjaer’s tactical preferences lead only to the illusion of progress.

From the biggest step forward to the biggest step back, it ought to emphatically change opinion – and end the argument.

Solskjaer has had 18 months and nothing has changed. It is time Woodward and the Glazer family realised that, for the club to truly turn that corner, they need to leave Solskjaer behind.