By George Simms
Manchester United, and their fans, have become too used to not winning trophies. ‘We’re building something here’ has transformed from a solid foundation to a comfy hiding spot whenever the proverbial starts to make its way hastily towards the nearest fan. They watched Jürgen Klopp, and even Pep Guardiola, have poor early seasons in the Premier League before they won titles. They’re still desperately hanging on to the idea that it’s their turn next.
There are a few minor differences between Liverpool under Klopp, Manchester City under Guardiola, and Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solksjaer. Firstly, Klopp and Guardiola are generational talents with a whiteboard and some training cones. They’ve pushed the boundaries of footballing innovation over the last decade as the sport’s own Gates and Jobs.
Now, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer is a good manager. If I didn’t admit that, I’d be falling into the same trap as the sofa-dwelling oaf who drunkenly screams ‘You’re shit’ at their star striker, before pulling a hamstring trying to punt the cat across the living room. Great, however, he is not. It seems ever more unlikely by the day that he will ever reach that level.
Secondly, both Guardiola and Klopp were experienced in building winning sides when they joined their respective clubs. Klopp had done it at Dortmund, Pep at Barcelona, and to a lesser extent at Bayern.
Before his return to Old Trafford, Solksjaer’s greatest success was the back-to-back Norwegian Tippelaegen, as it still was at the time, wins in 2011 and 2012. When he went back to Molde in 2015, he inherited a Norwegian double-winning side. They then finished sixth, fifth, and second twice, before he left for United in March 2019.
Molde won the title again the season he left. Whilst he may know how to get close, he’s far from a serial winner, even in Norway. He’s barely learned how to get the training wheels off his first bike, and now he’s trying to ride with the Hells Angels.
Solksjaer has never averaged more than two points a game across his tenure at any club. Pep has done it with all three sides he’s coached. Klopp has done it with Liverpool, and very nearly managed it with a Borussia Dortmund side he’d taken over in 13th and nearly bankrupt. Antonio Conte, who was inevitably entering this conversation at some point, has done it with Juventus (both times he coached there), Italy, Chelsea, and Inter Milan.
Thirdly, Klopp and Guardiola are commanding presences. They know how to garner the respect of the prima donna footballing elite. There are no overpowering egos in their dressing rooms because they know how to handle them. That is, don’t sign them. They’re not worth the hassle.
Guardiola learnt that when Zlatan Ibrahimović purportedly told him “You haven’t got any balls” after a Champions League semi-final loss. A lack of Is in his team has always been a fundamental tenet of Klopp’s philosophy. Say what you like about Mo Salah’s selfishness on a football pitch, off it he is one of the most likeable and charitable figures in the Premier League.
Conversely, no-one would describe the ‘baby-faced assassin’ as a commanding presence. When he still has Paul Pogba, and Mino Raiola with him, on his payroll, and signed Cristiano Ronaldo last summer, he’s clearly learned no lessons about dealing with egos. You half-expect to see him bring in Neymar and Eric Cantona in January.
Finally, great coaches make great footballers better. They make even good footballers great. If I were to list the players which Klopp and Guardiola had inspired to greatness, I’d go over my word limit. At United, there’s an argument that only Luke Shaw and Scott McTominay have become tangibly better players by working with Solksjaer.
Even then, Luke Shaw was always an incredible talent who had been grossly mistreated by Jose Mourinho. All Ole needed to do was not constantly malign and neglect him, and he was bound to improve. McTominay has only improved thanks to the huge burden of responsibility thrust upon him by being one of the only functioning central midfielders left at the club. He’s risen to the challenge by virtue of his personality, not Ole’s great man-to-man work.
After nearly a decade away from genuinely challenging for the Premier League, you can understand that some around Manchester United have slightly forgotten how it feels. The lofty heights of the Europa League and League Cup ‘double’ of 2016-17 even seem like the glory days if you look at their trophy cabinet as of late.
A team with Cristiano Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho, Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes, Raphael Varane, Marcus Rashford and Luke Shaw on it should not be ‘battling’ past Atalanta. They should not be falling like a pensioner in a stiff breeze at the first sign of an organised football team, whether that’s referring to the Leicester collapse or the Liverpool disintegration.
The difference between Frank Lampard and Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea sides is a cast-iron example of what needs to happen at Old Trafford. Almost every great footballing side has had a great manager at the helm. Many sides have great managers and still never achieve greatness. Occasionally, a good manager and a good team come together to symbiotically become great – think Ranieri and Leicester. That clearly is not that case for Solksjaer and his merry band of underperforming and overpaid superstars. Manchester United can never dream of regaining the Bond villain-esque power they once held over British football with a ‘good’ manager.
Antonio Conte won last season’s Serie A with a selection box of United rejects. Old Trafford now boasts one of the finest squads in the Premier League, potentially the best if the right manager can get a tune out of the likes of Sancho, Antony Martial, and Victor Lindelof. The excuses that Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho had at their disposal disappeared with the acrimonious exit of Ed Woodward and the signings of Sancho, Ronaldo and Bruno.
Conte knows he can win with this squad and is rumoured to be ready to accept the job offer if it comes. The sooner that offer arrives, the quicker United will become title challengers. If it doesn’t, I fancy Newcastle to be the next United to have their name engraved on the Premier League trophy.
Image: NazionaleCalcio via Creative Commons