Under-fire Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admits there is scrutiny about his position in the Old Trafford dugout ahead of Saturday’s crucial derby against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
After crashing out of the UEFA Champions League following successive defeats to Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig this month, Solskjaer’s charges will attempt to rebound when they welcome their city rivals on Saturday in what is increasingly being seen as a pivotal fixture for the Norwegian’s long-term future at Manchester United.
United’s performances have been consistently inconsistent so far this term, ranging for impressive to underwhelming – often in the span of just a few days – and it seems that more and more cracks are beginning to form as the season progresses.
There have been bright sparks, to be clear. Bruno Fernandes is one of the chief creative forces in the Premier League and the young striking duo of Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood would be the envy of most sides in Europe, even if their performances haven’t yet reached the level of consistency that their talent demands.
But there are problems, some of them significant. Paul Pogba, the French World Cup winner drafted back into the squad in 2016 to act as the team’s mercurial talisman, is angling for his exit from the club. Captain Harry Maguire seems to have the weight of the world on his shoulders after his high-profile preseason arrest in Mykonos and David de Gea, once the world’s best goalkeeper, arguably isn’t even the best number one at his club anymore.
These symptoms point to an overwhelming malaise at the club Solskjaer was brought in to transform. The previous managers in the post-Ferguson era, David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho, couldn’t quite resurrect United from the doldrums.
But Solskjaer, with his Manchester United DNA, was supposed to be different. He understood the ethos of the club, his giddy supporters declared when they announced the team was “back” now that “Ole is at the wheel” – but even Rio Ferdinand, who famously uttered those predictions when Solskjaer was handed the reins two years ago has recanted.
And it won’t get any easier for them on Saturday. Manchester City and their bottomless pockets have emerged as the city’s best club in the post-Ferguson years and will come to Old Trafford with the intention of hammering further pressure on the under-fire Norwegian – and speaking to the media ahead of the crucial game, Solskjaer says that he was always aware of how bright the spotlight would be fixed on him.
“That’s something I had to think about when I accepted the role,” he said. “Do I have what it takes to be in such a situation? Can you handle setbacks? Can you handle success? I think I can.
“I’ve got a fantastic staff around me who I use as sparring partners for discussions – even the conversation with the club [executive] goes on all the time. It’s a continuous open dialogue. When you come to work the next day you see the quality of the players you have and you want to work with them.”
In what will be his 109th game as Manchester United boss, and despite countless millions shelled out in the transfer market, Solskjaer says that his team are slowly – very slowly – shaping into the type of team he wants.
“I feel we’re getting better and better and looking more like a Man United team that I want with fast attackers, with dynamism,” he said. “We’ve got good players and individual quality that can create magic out of nothing – that’s always been the way at Man United. But we can see more of the penetration and consistency everyone says we don’t have.”
After nearly three decades of success under Sir Alex, the seven years which have followed have seen United diverge the course and seek instant success from whoever sits in the hot seat. When it came down to it, the club bit the bullet and jettisoned Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho.
Solksjaer has a lot to do to make sure that his own pink slip doesn’t arrive in the mail before this season is out.