In another time, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer might reasonably have been expected to take the lead, acknowledging it was broken and politely volunteer to show himself to the door.
Time and again, we were told he understood Manchester United and the same old lines were trotted out about the way Solskjaer, unlike some of his predecessors, “got” the club’s DNA.
Well, fine, but surely then he would understand why no manager at Old Trafford who recorded such a traumatic set of results could justifiably expect to hold onto his job.
How could anyone legitimately think otherwise when United were just embarrassed – and every one of these defeats constituted a genuine embarrassment – in four of their last five Premier League assignments?
Solskjaer must know, deep down, that the game was up. United, to put it into context, conceded as many Premier League goals in the first three months of this season as Liverpool, City and Chelsea combined.
Solskjaer found himself in charge of a team with a negative goal difference after 12 matches – 20 scored, 21 conceded – at a time when only two other clubs in England’s top division sieved more goals in their first dozen fixtures. One are Newcastle United, bottom of the league. The other are Norwich City, who were second-bottom. For the 20-time champions of England, it was a tragicomedy. Yet it was not Solskjaer’s decision to go.
Instead, it fell to the people higher up at Old Trafford, whose running of the club can be accurately gauged by the fact 94 per cent of voters in a recent poll for The Athletic said they had zero confidence in United getting the next appointment right.
One of those decision-makers, Ed Woodward, is already depicted in Red News, United’s longest-running fanzine, in a cartoon – “Avram Glazer and his Puppet” – that probably tells us a lot about his popularity, or lack of, among the club’s supporters. Woodward is superimposed on a ventriloquist’s dummy and perched on Glazer’s knee. His speech bubble reads, “It’s amazing you pay me £4 million a year, Mr Glazer.”
Not for much longer, though. Woodward, lest it be forgotten, announced in April he was resigning as executive vice-chairman and would leave the club towards the end of the year. Aleksander Ceferin, UEFA’s president, had branded him a “snake” for playing a significant role in the proposed European Super League breakaway around then. Woodward said he had come to his senses and realised it was a bad idea, after all. And, seven months on, it is tempting to wonder whether this sequence of events might, in turn, partly explain why Solskjaer also clung on for so long.
Woodward already hired and fired David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho in the eight post-Alex Ferguson years and, on each occasion, it shone a light on his own shortcomings. Did he really want to have to sack Solskjaer as his final act in office? Was this why Solskjaer survived Liverpool’s biggest ever win at Old Trafford and, two weeks later, arguably the most one-sided Manchester derby in living memory?
At another club, the guillotine would have fallen earlier, and there would have been a measure of relief that a manager with Antonio Conte’s record of achievement was fluttering his eyelashes in their direction. Nobody could have been too surprised. Nobody could have made a coherent argument that Solskjaer’s results, even taking into account the occasional highs, were satisfactory for a club with United’s ambitions.
Instead, they chose to do nothing and it was Tottenham Hotspur who acted decisively by removing Nuno Espirito Santo and recognising that Conte was a superior choice. It might have cost the north London club a lot of money, but it was an upgrade. And isn’t that the most important factor when it comes to changing managers? Four days after Conte was announced as Spurs coach, City came to Old Trafford and humiliated Solskjaer’s United for the second time in as many home games.
Aston Villa, meanwhile, used this month’s international break to sever their ties with Dean Smith because of a pattern of deteriorating results. Daniel Farke was also removed by Norwich. Both clubs won this weekend under new management when the season resumed. And, yes, it jars sometimes to see the lack of patience and understanding among the Premier League’s clubs.
There were also times – let’s not be hypocritical here – when Solskjaer did seem capable of rewarding Woodward and the Glazers for holding their nerve. Many of us admired their support for the Norwegian when he ran into trouble in the past.
It just didn't look so clever when, almost three years in, the results were so wild and eccentric. Maybe they thought it was just a blip and that it would soon pass. But a blip became a slump and United were slow to do anything about it. Too slow, almost certainly.
A team packed with star players somehow managed to have no personality. Opponents were talking about how strange it was that United had no set pattern of play. Solskjaer started to look as grey as John Major’s Spitting Image puppet. Footballers love to play the blame game and, increasingly, there were players in United’s dressing room who held the manager responsible. If anything, it was getting worse not better.
Maybe the people running the club took a certain amount of pride that United, on the whole, were supportive of their managers and liked to believe the long-term gain would be worth the short-term pain. Maybe they thought it would look weak to abandon that position. Or maybe, on reflection, it was just blind faith.
Senior figures from Old Trafford genuinely seemed to have thought that everything was in reasonable shape. They arrived at Watford yesterday expecting to win.
What happened instead was so alarming it should come as no surprise to find out the statement was already being prepared to confirm it was Solskjaer’s last game. United’s goalkeeper David de Gea described the 4-1 defeat as a “nightmare.” Solskjaer said it was the worst they had played and it was not entirely clear if he meant this season or his entire reign. He acknowledged his players had been “outfought” and that perhaps was the most worrying line of all.
With his sacking, however, don’t just assume Solskjaer’s removal will make everything OK again. He wasn't the only problem. The issues are numerous and go right to the top. Manchester United are a bewildering club, from the dressing room to the boardroom.
What does it say, just for starters, that even people who deal with United regularly are unsure about when Woodward is leaving and who, in the meantime, is in charge on a day-to-day basis? Woodward is seldom at games these days. Is he still calling the shots? Is it Richard Arnold, the managing director? Or are the owners, the Glazer family, taking care of everything via remote control from Florida? How have United got themselves in such a position?
And isn’t it a flawed kind of logic to sack Solskjaer now, with the team having begun an 11-game blitz in 40 days against Watford, when they could have cut him free during the two-week break that preceded their trip to Vicarage Road? Surely it would have been cleaner, and wiser, to do it that way? Give the players time to settle, let everyone breathe and then back to work again.
Something has clearly changed, too, at the top of the club, bearing in mind the relevant people have never been this patient with any other manager.
Patrice Evra tells the story in his autobiography about how the final straw for Moyes was a 2-0 defeat at Everton, when someone dressed as the grim reaper loomed behind the dugouts and, outside the ground, United’s team coach was surrounded by gloating locals.
“One of them threw something that bounced off the coach window. Giggsy (Ryan Giggs) stood up on the coach and shouted, ‘Fucking Everton fans are now taking the piss out of us. Enough is enough’. He was right. The next day, the senior players – myself, Vida (Nemanja Vidic), Wayne (Rooney), Giggsy, Rio (Ferdinand) and Michael Carrick – were summoned to Ed Woodward’s office. I knew then that Woodward had lost faith in David and was not surprised at all when he was sacked.”
In Solskjaer’s case, there was always a stock reply when the question was put to United about why they placed so much trust in an inexperienced manager who would never have been considered for the job but for his “Football, bloody hell” moment for them against Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final.
No doubt you are familiar with the response: the story of Ferguson, pre-knighthood, straying dangerously close to the sack after three years in the job and all the glories that might have been missed if the club had pulled the trigger.
It reeled in a lot of people, that story. What it tended to ignore was that Ferguson was the exception rather than the norm. We are talking about one of the greats of his profession. His success was almost freakish. But that process had started at Aberdeen, before he agreed to take over from Ron Atkinson at Old Trafford in November 1986.
Solskjaer, formerly the manager of Molde and Cardiff City, cannot be talked about in the same terms.
Woodward saw it differently and, if these are his last few weeks in office, it is probably typical of his accident-prone reign that it is ending this way, chaotically and without any obvious form of joined-up thinking.
This article was originally published on The Athletic. Follow @theathletic and @theathleticuk on Twitter.
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