Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s name was still ringing around Old Trafford. It was not, though, coming from the corner of the Stretford End, which contains Manchester United’s most fervent, most vocal fans. Those fans stood silent, fuming, as their nightmare unfurled in front of them.
Instead, it was the Liverpool fans, corralled at the other end of the stadium, the afternoon’s events taking them from delight to ecstasy and then all the way to something approaching delirium, offering the hymns in his praise on Sunday. Humiliation on the field is one thing. The mockery off it may prove too much for Manchester United to endure.
Until now, Solskjaer has always commanded the loyalty of United’s fans. No matter how many false dawns his team has endured over the last three years, no matter how frustrating it has been to watch a side that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to assemble veer between triumph and disaster, often in the same game, no matter how unclear his vision for the club has been, they have stood by him.
He was, after all, a hero for the club as a player. His love for Manchester United has never been in question. His reverence for United’s traditions might, at times, come across as a touch sentimental, but it is undoubtedly sincere. After the mercenary years of José Mourinho and Louis van Gaal, when the well-being of the club came a distant second to the burnishing of those managers’ legacies, he has been a welcome palliative.
But there is, necessarily, a limit to sentimentality. There is no reason, in particular, to believe that Sunday’s 5-0 thrashing by Liverpool will prove a watershed for the club’s hierarchy: Solskjaer’s iteration of Manchester United has ricocheted almost constantly between hope and despair, and the club has never shown anything but blind faith in him.
The fans, too, did not aim their fire in his direction. There were no chants demanding his ouster, no public manifestations of dissent. Equally significant, though, there were no defiant expressions of support, as there have been in previous low moments. This, perhaps, might have been the day that something significant shifted.
It would be difficult to overstate the scale of United’s collapse. How best to express it? That Liverpool did not play particularly well in the first half, giving the ball away cheaply in the midfield and inviting pressure reasonably frequently, but still made it to the break with a four-goal lead?
Or that midway through the second half the streets outside the stadium were full of fans seeking sanctuary from what was unfolding inside of it, with more and more people bolting for the exits as the game wore on and the suffering worsened? Or that Jürgen Klopp’s team was so dominant that it spent the last half-hour, after Mohamed Salah had scored his third goal, and his team’s fifth, toying with United, playing with all the intensity of a warm-down training session?
Or, perhaps, it would be the fury and the frustration that should have seen Cristiano Ronaldo sent off for lashing out at Liverpool’s Curtis Jones at the end of the first half, and eventually did see Paul Pogba — only a few minutes after his introduction as a substitute — dismissed for a wild, reckless challenge on Naby Keita.
Both were, as much as anything, an expression of United’s absolute impotence, an abdication of control rooted in the embarrassment being inflicted on Solskjaer’s players. They were powerless to match Liverpool. They were unable to stop Keita, Salah and Roberto Firmino, in particular, who cut through them at will. They had lost the game, and so they lost their cool.
It was Solskjaer who had to bear the brunt of that, of course. It was Solskjaer who had to stand there, on the touchline, his head ever so slightly bowed, as Liverpool’s fans crowed and taunted and, with a cruel and obvious irony, invoked his name.
It was Solskjaer who had to answer the questions at the end, who had to conjure whatever explanation he could, who had to give an instant, taped deposition for what will be, largely, an inquest into his own continued viability. And it is Solskjaer who will be dismissed, in some quarters, as nothing but a frontman for the great Manchester United tribute act, a sort of glorified mascot for a club whose business model is based on milking former glories.
That is the way it is, the way it has always been, but it should not disguise the fact that he is not solely to blame. The core difference between United and Liverpool is not just in the quality of their coaches — Solskjaer, granted his job on the basis of his playing career, and Klopp, who earned his because of what he had achieved as a coach — but in the coherence of their structures.
Pogba started on the bench on Sunday because there is, in effect, no system available to Solskjaer that enables him to maximize the galaxy of stars at his disposal. Playing a way that suits Pogba means negating Bruno Fernandes or dropping Marcus Rashford or sidelining Mason Greenwood.
United signed Cristiano Ronaldo this summer — get the band back together for the last, ever, world tour — partly out of romance, partly out of cynicism, partly because it was worried he was going to join Manchester City and partly, of course, because he is one of the greatest players of all time. But it did so with no real idea of how he would fit into the team, with no regard for the fact that it meant effectively stalling Jadon Sancho’s Manchester United career before it had begun.
These are not things Liverpool does. They are not, for that matter, things that Manchester City or Chelsea do. It is Solskjaer’s fault that he cannot get the best out of these players, that he sent out a team so woefully overmatched against Liverpool, but it is not his fault that his resources are so uneven, their shapes just not quite dovetailing with each other.
That was of little or no solace as he stood on the touchline, the scoreboard emblazoned with the proof of his humiliation, Liverpool’s fans singing his praises. It was hard, in fact, not to feel sorry for Solskjaer at that moment, and that may be the most worrying thing of all. It is one thing to be beaten, to be criticized. It is quite another to be where he is now, the butt of the joke. A manager can recover from many things. Being a punchline is not one of them.
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