“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” - Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight
Manchester United have sacked Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The man who, as a player, brought them perhaps their most glorious moment, that last-minute winner against Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final, now departs in shame. He leaves one month after leading his team to a 5-0 home defeat against Liverpool, the club’s most despised rivals, and a lesser but somehow equally humiliating loss against Manchester City. The very last people in the Manchester United universe to tire of Solskjaer’s employment appeared to be the team’s board of directors. The final straw for them was apparently Saturday’s 4-1 thrashing at Watford, a team who had not won at home since the first game of the season.
At the end of their sporting careers, every great footballer dies a death of sorts. Retirement is the permanent demise of one identity, an identity in which they were all-conquering and their private trophy cabinet was stuffed with medals. The only consolation is that they are remembered with reverence. When Solskjaer left Old Trafford as a player, he, in that sense, died a hero. When he took over as manager in 2018, it was asking a lot for him to restore the glory of the Sir Alex Ferguson years: or, in effect, to die a hero twice. The fault for that excessive pressure ultimately lies with Manchester United. This is a club so vexed by its present difficulties and so confused by its future that it sought solace in a key figure from its past. For a certain time, and in many ways, that approach worked. Then, swiftly and brutally, the future caught up.
There is nothing inherently wrong with looking to the past. It has worked for clubs and national teams before. Perhaps history will be kind to Solskjaer, and there are some ways in which it should be. Though his appointment was a spectacular gamble, one that might have paid off had it not gone on so long, he did several excellent things during his spell as manager. He started in exhilarating fashion, winning 14 of his first 19 games, including the elimination of Paris Saint-Germain from the Champions League. He was charged with reminding Manchester United who they were, with getting them to play thrilling football in the best of their tradition, and there were several games when he did that. He was asked to restore them to their former heights, and last season’s second-place finish in the Premier League is an achievement that would bring any leading coach pride. He trimmed down the squad, boldly allowing prominent players to leave because they did not fit into his plans: He promoted talent from within the club’s ranks, and he led his team to notable wins against close rivals. His man management was frequently impressive, as was some of his improvement of key players: most strikingly, when he coaxed some of Luke Shaw’s very best form from him, and persuaded Paul Pogba to remain when it seemed he might depart (though he could not convince Pogba to extend his contract and the Frenchman might still leave Manchester soon).
Yet Solskjaer’s reign so often had the air of guerilla warfare, of a plucky underdog overcoming opponents who should really be outmatching them. The suspicion was always that Manchester United would be exposed when forced to play an open game against the best teams in the country. The mark of the game’s greatest coaches is consistency from week to week. Winning a big match here and there is the stuff of rebel legend, but it is not something on which you can build a lasting campaign. It was widely believed and feared at the time of his appointment that he would not eventually enter the ranks of the game’s greatest coaches.
The owners of the club refused to listen to that advice, in part because they do not pay sufficient attention to matters on the field, and maybe that is because their priorities are significantly different from that of the bulk of supporters. The Glazer family acquired Manchester United in 2005 and turned an institution that was thriving financially due to its on-field success into a debt mountain. This was an utterly unsentimental acquisition, a pure investment opportunity, and Solskjaer’s appointment happened partly to mask that grim absence of sentimentality. Now that he has gone, we are again left with the harsh reality that the club is run without love at its heart.
Solskjaer’s greatest gift as a forward was his sense of timing, of understanding exactly when and where to arrive in the penalty area, and so it is ironic that he overstayed his welcome in this post. It is a further irony that, since one of his best seasons came as a wide right-sided forward, he was unable to accommodate Jadon Sancho in the same role. Yet maybe the manner of his failure is also fitting. The main criticism of Solskjaer was that his teams could not form the complex attacking patterns that break down the best of defenses; that his tactics were, at a certain point, out of date. Compare him to, say, Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea, which thrives due to their compression of space between players when defending. Solskjaer’s Manchester United were in their latter stages too often caught in isolation, one teammate marooned far from another, continually outnumbered in the middle of the pitch, standing there overwhelmed as the tidal wave of the future tumbled over them. Part of that is the fault of those responsible for the team’s transfer business and the club failing to invest in central midfield, yet there were also just too many key tactical mistakes.
From one perspective, it is difficult to envy whoever takes this job next. Whoever does so will be settling down on a throne that the Glazers have been too negligent to fill properly since the Fergusons’ departure in 2013. They will therefore know that recruitment is neither their bosses’ strongest suit nor their prime concern. They will also know that the purchase of players is driven more by the desire for headlines and social media interactions than the prospect of success on the pitch. It will be a little like turning up at an amusement park only to find that the owners care far less about the thrill of the fairground rides and more about the brightness of their neon lights.
Yet there is another perspective, and a more charitable one, which is this: That despite the frustration caused by his last few weeks in charge, Solskjaer still leaves with the sense that he gave his best, with the ultimate feeling at his departure being sadness rather than anger. In that context, the club’s owners may now be ready for a manager with an established record at the top level. And if Solskjaer is to draw his own solace from this, it is that he provided many supporters with as great a sense of self, of the club’s best nature, as they have known since Ferguson left.