Manchester United are not doing as well as they should at the moment. Everybody knows that, and everybody’s looking at the position of Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with interest. An increasingly large proportion of the club’s supporter base – probably not the majority, but a minority that gets bigger with each failure – want the coach to be fired. The fans at Old Trafford feel that they have a squad capable of competing for the Premier League trophy for the first time in almost a decade, and the biggest obstacle to them getting their hands on it is their as-yet-trophyless manager. Club legends and former teammates of Solskjaer like Peter Schmeichel and Rio Ferdinand have called on supporters to get behind their manager. An even bigger club legend might have other ideas.
When it comes to Manchester United legends, none are bigger than Sir Alex Ferguson. He’s the man for whom the former North Stand of Old Trafford is named, and also the man who took them to the Premier League title an astonishing thirteen times, adding two UEFA Champions League trophies to that during his 26-year reign as manager. He’s officially the most successful manager in the history of English football, and his longevity and trophy record are unlikely ever to be beaten. He’s also Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s mentor. Ferguson brought the Norwegian to Manchester United as a player and gave him his first coaching job in charge of the club’s academy team when he retired from playing. Since Solskjaer took the reigns at United in December 2018, he’s been able to call on Ferguson for advice and support when times have been tough. That might not be the case any longer.
United’s most recent embarrassment was a 1-1 draw at home to Everton in a game they could and should have won. Solskjaer’s starting eleven immediately caught the eye because of the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho, and Paul Pogba, all of whom were on the bench. Fans vented their disapproval of the decision all over social media, especially when the eternally disappointing Fred and Anthony Martial got the nod. Ronaldo was eventually brought on as a substitute during the second half but was unable to affect the game’s outcome. Everton boss Rafa Benitez later said it was a boost to his team when they saw the United teamsheet and noticed that Ronaldo wasn’t on it. Solskjaer defended his decision after the game, saying that at the age of 36, Ronaldo needed to be rested occasionally. A leaked video of Ferguson makes it clear that the Scot disagrees with his apprentice.
UFC legend Khabib Nurmagomedov was at Old Trafford for the game and met with Ferguson after the full-time whistle. Ferguson, who doesn’t appear to have been aware he was being recorded, told the cage fighter that teams should “always start with their best players.” Nurmagomedov later uploaded the video to his Instagram account, and it quickly made headlines all over the sporting world. Fergus1on obviously disagrees with Solskjaer’s team selection and feels that it may have cost United the additional two points that would have come with a win. It’s an opinion shared by many supporters and by Cristiano Ronaldo.
Solskajer claims to have spoken to Ronaldo before the game and explained his reasons for benching him, which Ronaldo agreed with. If that’s the case, Ronaldo must have forgotten about that conversation by the time the game started. He looked angry on the bench, unhappy when he came on, and downright furious at the full-time whistle. Instead of sticking around to shake hands with people or applaud the fans, the Portuguese star stormed off down the tunnel without speaking to anybody. He said nothing with his words, but his body language couldn’t have been clearer. Sancho and Pogba aren’t any more likely to enjoy being on United’ bench than Ronaldo is. The question of why all three of them would even be on the bench simultaneously is a difficult one to answer. In fact, Solskjaer might be the only person in the world to whom benching the entire trio at once when they’re fit makes sense.
So far, United’s hierarchy has made positive noises about standing by its man. Solskjaer signed a new three-year contract in July, so sacking him three months into it would reflect badly on them. It would also be very expensive. However, the cost of failure would also be high. Bringing Cristiano Ronaldo back to the club has raised expectations at Old Trafford and placed the onus on Solskjaer to deliver a major trophy. Drawing at home to Everton, losing to Aston Villa, and suffering the indignity of losing away from home at Young Boys in Switzerland suggests that he might not be up to the task. Many United fans would say that the evidence he’s not up to the task was already available last season and that giving the coach a new contract was a bad idea.
There was already pressure on Solskjaer before the Everton game. Ronaldo’s public sulk has added to that pressure. Ferguson’s voice still matters at Old Trafford even in retirement, and so his opinion will increase the pleasure further. The team has a difficult run of fixtures coming up. If wins don’t come, the board has to decide when the right time to gamble on a managerial change is – and “gamble” really would be the operative word. Changing managers when there’s so much on the line is little different to throwing big money at an online slots game and hoping for the best. That’s something Ronaldo should actually know a lot about, given that it’s his likeness that appears in the super-popular “Striker Goes Wild” online slots game. The gamble is that sacking the incumbent manager would result in an immediate improvement in form and that a new coach would be capable of keeping that form going. It’s arguably even riskier than playing online slots because you at least have the option of spinning again when you lose at slots. Each change of manager is a slow process and can cost millions of pounds.
There are options out there for United. Antonio Conte is one. Zinedine Zidane is another. Former United and England full-back Gary Neville has not-so-subtly hinted that he’d be interested, but his brief tenure at Valencia suggests he wouldn’t fare any better than Solskjaer. Whether there’s change coming or not, Ferguson’s interjection in this row is significant. The smart money says that Solskjaer won’t see out his contract.