Paul Merson believes Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s best laid plans all went out of the window this summer when Manchester United signed Cristiano Ronaldo.
Solskjaer’s tenure at Old Trafford ended on Sunday after he was axed following the 4-1 defeat to struggling Watford. The Norwegian coach had been under huge pressure after heavy defeats to Liverpool and Manchester City. And the mauling at Vicarage Road was the straw that broke the back for United’s hierarchy.
Solskjaer’s assistant Michael Carrick has been placed temporary charge and he will be at the helm for Tuesday’s game at Villarreal. But the club are intending to appoint an interim manager until the end of the season. They will then hope to appoint a long-term successor to Solskjaer, with Mauricio Pochettino understood to be high on their list.
Ultimately United’s performances and results this season were not good enough. Seven defeats in their last 13 games in all competitions left moral at an all-time low. But Merson has sympathy for Solskjaer and believes the signing of Ronaldo destroyed his pre-season plans.
In his latest column, Merson told Sky Sports: “I feel sorry for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. He had a plan at the start of the season, having finished second last season. He’s chased Jadon Sancho for a long time, got him in, and he’s given Edinson Cavani another year.
“You could see his plan: you play Cavani every other game, you have Sancho on one side, Marcus Rashford on the other, you have Mason Greenwood coming in and swapping around, you have pace, power, energy, youth, skill, the lot.
“Then, just before the season starts, he gets given Ronaldo. I think he’s thrown it all out of the window. From day one, they’re not a better team with Ronaldo in it.
“You don’t go 29 games unbeaten away without playing a certain way, and bringing Sancho in gave them another weapon to play that way.
‘It snowballed for Solskjaer’
“With Ronaldo up there, you don’t have that weapon to play on the counter-attack any more. And Bruno Fernandes was their best player last season – he’s hardly had a touch this season!”
Merson was heavily critical of United’s signing of Ronaldo from day one. The Portuguese forward has scored nine goals in 14 games, but Merson says United’s style of play has been affected.
And he believes the sole reason United landed Ronaldo on transfer deadline day was to stop him signing for their cross-city rivals.
“It’s all snowballed for Solskjaer,” said Merson. “He had a plan, and the Ronaldo situation threw it all out of the window, just before the season started. They only went for him because they heard Man City were after him. It’s not like United were calling Juventus to ask if he’s available because Ronaldo is the missing link for United winning the Premier League. He isn’t!
“They thought: ‘We can’t let him go to Man City – it’s bad enough them finishing above us every year in the league anyway!’”
“Solskjaer tried to drop him against Everton in early October – people say he rested him, but they had internationals the week after! He was hoping they’d beat Everton to justify him keeping the same team. That backfired, and all of a sudden, he had to go back to playing him every week.
“They chased Sancho for 18 months, they get him and he doesn’t play a game. People are saying they didn’t need Sancho, but he was perfect for the way they played counter-attacking football. Now they can’t counter-attack, and the plan completely and utterly went out of the window.
‘Solskjaer didn’t buy him’
“It’s a problem going forward. The fans love Ronaldo, he’s the king. Don’t get me wrong, he’s been one of the best players in the world, but this is the Achilles heel. The bloke is a legend, with the records he’s put up, but that’s not today.
“It’s alright people saying: ‘He’s done his job, he’s scored goals.’ But United need to play as a team to win trophies, not have someone who stands up front and puts the ball in the net 20 times a season. They need a team.
“He’s a legend. I’m not having a go at Ronaldo, and he’ll go down as one the best to ever play football.
“But I got shot down from day one on Transfer Deadline Day. I got slaughtered for saying they were further away from winning the league the moment they signed him than they were before. It’s not Solskjaer’s fault – Solskjaer didn’t buy him!
“I think they need to find a position for him, and maybe even give him a free role. I don’t know if you can keep him in the team, I don’t think they’re dominant enough in midfield, and without Raphael Varane in defence, they’re all over the place.”