Under normal circumstances, in Manchester United‘s post-Sir Alex Ferguson era, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would be in trouble. Nine games to go, fifth in the table and three points adrift of the top four would normally have the Glazers’ trigger finger twitching.
Every manager employed since Ferguson retired in 2013 has been allowed to stay only as long as they kept the club in the Champions League. David Moyes lasted 10 months and was axed 48 hours after it became mathematically impossible to finish fourth. Louis van Gaal finished fourth in his first season and survived, but was fired a year later after finishing fifth. Even the FA Cup wasn’t enough to earn the Dutchman a reprieve. Jose Mourinho went one better and managed two consecutive Champions League qualifications before the axe fell in December 2018, after a start to the season so poor that his team needed a miracle to get back to European football’s top table.
History, then, suggests that with just under a quarter of the season remaining, Solskjaer is on thin ice. But he’s not. Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward has not spent the three months in coronavirus lockdown tapping up replacements — even if Mauricio Pochettino is available and eager to return to management — but rather speaking to Solskjaer about what next season’s squad might look like.
Barring some kind of epic collapse after the Premier League’s Project Restart, Solskjaer will keep his job regardless of whether United finish in the top four. It could yet turn out to be a good campaign if they lift either the FA Cup or Europa League and qualify for the Champions League. But a bad one — no silverware and no Champions League — is unlikely to spell the end for the Norwegian.
For Woodward and the Glazers, it marks a change of tact.
Failure to qualify for the Champions League this season will cost United money — not only in broadcast revenue, but also because of a penalty clause written into their Adidas sponsorship deal — but Solskjaer will not be the one to pay the price. After growing tired of Mourinho’s short-termism, Woodward is playing the long game and he has already seen enough to believe Solskjaer is the right man.
Privately, Solskjaer knew in the summer he would get his United team nowhere near Liverpool and Manchester City in the table this season, and told Woodward as much. Instead, he said, his focus would be on “culture” — whether it was off the pitch, on the training ground or what he calls “performance culture” in matches.
The statistics suggest the blueprint is working. United build from the back (no Premier League team averages shorter goal kicks) and press when they don’t have the ball (their press recovery rate of more than 50 percent is one of the best in Europe). Solskjaer has told players it is OK to kick each other in training — within reason — and that results are to be engineered with fast, incisive and attacking football, either by dominating the game or with counter-attacks. Squad members, whatever their age or experience, are encouraged to be demanding of each other, and Bruno Fernandes‘ arrival from Sporting Lisbon in January has helped raise standards even further.
Off the pitch, Solskjaer has told his team he wants them to be “boring.” They were reminded at the beginning of the lockdown period of this need to focus, and although most have fallen in line, Marcos Rojo, on loan at Argentinian side Estudiantes was one of those reprimanded for breaking the rules.
Players were given a detailed plan while training at home — run and core on Mondays, rest day on Tuesdays, bike and power programme for the legs and hamstrings on Wednesdays, rest day on Thursdays, run programme and core on Fridays — while the coaching staff monitored their stats via GPS trackers. Daniel James clocked the top speed of 37.53 km/h and Jesse Lingard topped both the acceleration and intensity categories ahead of Harry Maguire.
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Solskjaer and his staff are concerned about injuries once the Premier League restarts, but also feel they have done everything they can to guard against it. A spate of injuries contributed to a dire run of form at the end last season and Solskjaer cannot afford the same to happen at such a crucial juncture. Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba, back after long layoffs, will be treated with caution for that reason.
On paper, United have a kind run with six of their nine remaining games against teams in the bottom half of the table, but it is against the smaller sides that they’ve struggled. A run of 11 games unbeaten before the shutdown suggests they were starting to find some consistency, but facing Mourinho’s Tottenham after three months without a competitive game will be a tough test.
When Spurs turned up at Old Trafford in December, they faced a United side who had won just five of their previous 15 games in all competitions. Even then, behind the scenes, club bosses were insistent Solskjaer’s job was not under threat and they remain as firm in their opinion now. Securing a return to the Champions League in the final weeks of the season will quiet any remaining doubters.