Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has finally recognised Manchester United’s problems – but can he fix them?
The good news is that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer now accepts there is a problem. Previously, the Manchester United manager had met each lifeless performance and disappointing result on this run of form with an unreasonably optimistic outlook.
He declared himself “pleased” with the goalless draw in Den Haag last Thursday, in which United failed to register a shot on target. There were “lessons to learn” from the stalemate with third-tier Rochdale at Old Trafford. He was “very positive” despite the defeat at West Ham. In public, at least.
And yet on Sunday, even he could find little to smile about. After losing 1-0 at second-bottom Newcastle United, thereby failing to win an 11th straight away game and extending the club’s worst start to a season in 30 years, he could not pretend there was any silver lining.
“[The defeat is] very symptomatic of where we are at the moment,” Solskjaer said, despite for weeks speaking of improvements the rest of us must have missed. To be fair, he then hit the nail on the head. “We don't create enough chances to deserve to win a game of football. That's the short version.”
There was more. “First half, I couldn't see that one coming before the game. It was such a disappointing performance first half,” Solskjaer added. “We couldn’t control it, it was like a hot potato, bouncing off our feet. The second half was better, but you could still see a couple of counter-attacks coming before the goal.
“At the moment, when there is a decision to be made they don't do it instinctively. That affects everyone.” This was a much more contrite version of Solskjaer than we have witnessed recently. He even apologised to fans and suggested a top-six finish would be difficult to achieve.
The United manager has rarely been so critical of his players’ performances and so downcast on the team’s prospects. This is not pessimism, though. It is a healthy dose of realism, as well as a long-awaited recognition that results simply have not been good enough.
The only comparable press conference Solskjaer has given during his time at United came back in April, after a woeful 4-0 reverse at Goodison Park, when he sent a warning to some of those who had turned out for United that day. “I am going to be successful here,” he promised. “There are players there who won’t be part of that successful team.”
Interestingly, he made a reference to that day in the wake of the Newcastle defeat. “This is not a similar situation to when I was sat here after Everton last year, when I felt people had given up and they don’t give what they have for the shirt,” he insisted. “These boys give everything they’ve got for the shirt.”
But only three members of that 18-man squad at Goodison Park – Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez and Chris Smalling – have left the club, and only Lukaku has left permanently. Ten of the 18 were still in Solskjaer’s match day squad on Sunday. The remaining five are still at the club, and most of them would have featured at St James’ Park if not for injury.
Perhaps Lukaku, Sanchez and Smalling were the only ones Solskjaer had an issue with back in April. Coming into the new campaign, perhaps he felt that the problems experienced at the tail end of last season were in the past. Perhaps, but it seems more likely that few players Solskjaer targeted that day are still at the club.
United look just as bad now as they did back in April, if not worse. The job is arguably the most challenging in elite world football. Better-qualified managers would struggle and fail. Some already have. Admitting you have a problem is the first step, at least, and Solskjaer finally did that on Sunday. Whether he has the ability to fix it is another question entirely.