A hundred years on from the writing of W.B. Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’, the Irish poet’s words continue to ring true: ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.’ They relate not just to any present political turmoil, but also, perhaps, to the fortunes of Manchester United and their coach, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. After a golden spell as interim manager, his change to permanent manager has brought a worrying slump: this is the team’s worst start to a season in thirty years. More than anything, the centre has not held, as their midfield has greatly disappointed.
Following his appointment as interim manager of Manchester United, Solskjaer oversaw a run of nineteen games in all competitions in which he won fourteen and only lost two. In those three months as interim manager, he had a clear philosophy of how he wanted his team to play, making use of an attacking 4-3-3 formation.
United deployed attacking full backs who would effectively link up with the wide players and create overloads on the flanks, allowing for added space in the middle for Marcus Rashford and a then in-form Paul Pogba. The ball was moved forward quickly, and the quality of play was undeniably exciting. Then, following an unlikely win away to Paris Saint-Germain, Solskjaer was offered the full-time job.
After all, the Norweigan had brought joy back to Manchester United. During his interim period, chants of “Ole’s at the wheel” rang around Old Trafford as his team pressed for victory in every game. It was as if he were the second coming of the great Sir Alex Ferguson.
However, once Solksjaer became the permanent manager, he set up his team as a man no longer trying to win games, but instead trying not to lose them. This season, Manchester United have set up with two defensive central midfielders, and the darkness of Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho has dropped again.
It seems that the current tactics, whether against Arsenal or Rochdale, involve parking the bus and trying to hit teams on the break using the pace of their forwards.
The football has been slow and reliant on the other team opening themselves up to a counter- attack. In their most recent match against AZ Alkmaar, United failed to register a single shot on target, while Pogba has been largely anonymous. Even their best players at times lack all conviction.
After seven games, Manchester United have only been able to register nine points and as a result sit mid-table. The level of their performances has matched that placement. Maybe, though, this criticism is premature. Chelsea are, at the time of writing, seventh, and yet their usually demanding fans seem delighted with the progress of their new coach.
Solkskaer’s problem lies in the abandonment of his initially attacking philosophy. He was given the job at Manchester United because it was believed that he would lead the rebuild at the club, with this eye-catching style playing a central part. Unfortunately, since then, and especially this season, Manchester United seem to have very little vision, while Solskjaer appears to be trying to survive game-by-game.
Ultimately, if Manchester continue to play slow defensive football, they will finish mid-table, with the top six and certainly top four looking highly unlikely. Solskjaer has been given assurances by the club that his job is safe until May, but a lowly placing then might jeopardise his position.
The manager has to go back to the attacking football he inspired in his first three excellent months. If he persists with a negative team selection, slouching towards mid-table, it seems inevitable that he will get sacked.
However, if Ole returns to the joyful style that marked his early reign, the top six should not be an issue. It would not exactly be the second coming, but it would be an improvement on the current underachievement which plagues the team.
Image: Arbeiderpartiet via Flickr