Under normal circumstances, in Manchester United’s post-Sir Alex Ferguson era, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would be in trouble. Nine games are missing, fifth in the standings and three drifting points of the first four would normally have the contraction of the fingers of the trigger of the Glazer.
All managers employed since Ferguson retired in 2013 have been allowed to stay only as long as they have kept the club in the Champions League. David Moyes lasted 10 months and was eliminated 48 hours after it became mathematically impossible to finish fourth. Louis van Gaal finished fourth in his first season and survived, but was fired a year later after finishing fifth. Even the FA Cup was not enough to earn a recovery for the Dutchman. Jose Mourinho did better and got two consecutive Champions League qualifiers before the ax fell in December 2018, after such a poor start to the season that his team needed a miracle to return to the European football table.
History therefore suggests that with just under a quarter of the season remaining, Solskjaer is on thin ice. But it is not. Executive Vice President Ed Woodward did not spend three months in the coronavirus blockade to intercept replacements – although Mauricio Pochettino is available and eager to return to management – but rather talking to Solskjaer about what next season’s team might look like.
Excluding some sort of epic collapse after the Premier League project restarts, Solskjaer will keep his job regardless of whether United make it into the top four. It could still prove to be a good campaign if they raise the FA Cup or the Europa League and qualify for the Champions League. But a bad story – no silverware and no Champions League – is unlikely to mark the end for the Norwegian.
For Woodward and the Glazers, it marks a change of touch.
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Failing to qualify for the Champions League this season will cost United’s money – not only because of the broadcast revenue, but also because of a penalty clause written in their Adidas sponsorship deal – but Solskjaer won’t be the one to pay the price . After getting tired of Mourinho’s short term, Woodward has been playing for a long time and has already seen enough to believe that Solskjaer is the right man.
In private, Solskjaer knew that in the summer he would not bring his Kingdom team close to Liverpool and Manchester City this season, and he told Woodward. Instead, he said, his focus would be on “culture” – whether it was off the pitch, on the training ground or what he calls “show culture” in games.
Statistics suggest that the project works. United builds from behind (no Premier League team averages shorter goal kicks) and presses when they don’t have the ball (its press recovery rate of over 50% is one of the best in Europe). Solskjaer told the players that it is okay to kick each other in training – within reasonable limits – and that the results must be engineered with fast, punchy and offensive football, both by dominating the game and with the counterattacks. Team members, regardless of their age or experience, are encouraged to ask each other, and Bruno Fernandes’ arrival from Sporting Lisbon in January has helped raise standards further.
Off the pitch, Solskjaer has told his team he wants them to be “boring”. At the beginning of the blocking period, the need to concentrate was remembered, and although most lined up, Marcos Rojo, on loan from the Argentine part Estudiantes, was one of those reproached for breaking the rules.
Players were given a detailed plan during home training – running and core on Monday, rest day on Tuesday, bike and power program for legs and hamstrings on Wednesday, rest day on Thursday, running and core on Friday – while technical staff monitored their stats via GPS trackers. Daniel James recorded a top speed of 37.53 km / h and Jesse Lingard passed both acceleration and intensity categories ahead of Harry Maguire.
Mark Ogden analyzes the importance of three points for Manchester United’s Champions League hopes.
Solskjaer and his staff are worried about injuries once the Premier League has restarted, but they also feel that they have done everything possible to protect themselves. A series of injuries contributed to a terrible series of forms at the end of last season and Solskjaer cannot afford to have the same happen at such a crucial moment. Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba, returned after long layoffs, will be treated with caution for this reason.
On paper, United have a good run with six of the nine games remaining against teams in the lower half of the table, but it is against the smaller sides that have fought. A string of 11 undefeated games before the stoppage suggests they were starting to find some consistency, but facing Mourinho’s Tottenham after three months without a competitive game will be a tough test.
When Spurs showed up at Old Trafford in December, they faced a United team that had only won five of their previous 15 games in all competitions. Even then, behind the scenes, the club leaders insisted that Solskjaer’s work was not threatened and remained firm in their opinion. Ensuring a return to the Champions League in the final weeks of the season will allay any remaining doubts.