Ed Woodward doesn’t like the phrase “on the edge of the abyss.” It’s too simple, according to Manchester United’s executive vice president, because it implies that the next result can determine whether he will endorse or fire a manager. He has fired three since taking the top job at Old Trafford in 2012 – David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and José Mourinho – but never, he says, for a result. Each time, he insists, he looked at the bigger picture of the trip, the road, the trajectory, whatever you want to call it.
And that is why he has told his closest friends this week that the ax is not hanging over Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Indeed, Woodward remains convinced that he has found the right man to win the club’s first Premier League title since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013.
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It’s been a rough few days for the Norwegian manager, first dealing with the fallout from Agent Mino Raiola telling the world that one of his high-profile clients, Paul Pogba, wants to leave, and then watching his team exit the Champions League with a 3-2 loss to RB Leipzig.
Manchester City will be next at Old Trafford on Saturday. While Solskjaer has a good track record against Pep Guardiola, winning three of his five meetings and three of four last season, it is also a dangerous game for a manager, if not under pressure, certainly under fire, to navigate after such a demoralizing setback. on weekdays.
Solskjaer is confident that he has Woodward’s long-term backing and the board, but he also doesn’t have his head in the sand. He himself has said that at a club with United’s ambition, you are never more than six games away from capture. Exiting the Champions League combined with a heavy derby loss and a losing streak at Christmas would leave Solskjaer on shaky ground in January.
But Woodward sees it differently. Privately, he points to stats like being just five points off the top of the table with a game in hand, and only Liverpool have accumulated more Premier League points since late January. He has told Solskjaer that he is prepared to cope with setbacks (the loss to Leipzig is probably the most significant since his permanent appointment in March 2019) and, most importantly, that the days of hiring and firing are over. Moyes received less than one season, Van Gaal two years and Mourinho was fired at 30 months. With each transition came a team identity change and an alternative recruiting strategy. Woodward believes that Solskjaer has solved both problems and does not want to start over from scratch.
Simply put, it means that as long as short-term results don’t make his position untenable, Solskjaer will be supported. There were murmurs, leaks and rumors in the days and weeks leading up to the impeachments of Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho, but even after the sad defeat in Germany on Tuesday, there has been nothing to suggest he is in imminent danger.
However, not all supporters have that much faith. They will never turn in droves against the 47-year-old after what he accomplished as a player, but there are concerns about his CV. Three of United’s Premier League rivals in north-west England are led by coaches who have won the Champions League: Guardiola at City, Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool and Carlo Ancelotti at Everton. Then there’s Mourinho at Tottenham, and looking beyond Mikel Arteta’s difficult start to this season at Arsenal, he has already won the FA Cup after less than a year in office. Solskjaer, meanwhile, has two Norwegian titles with Molde and has been relegated from the Premier League with Cardiff.
Other supporters insist that Solskjaer has been disappointed by the Glazers, Woodward and other top management figures. After finishing third last season and reaching three cup semi-finals, Solskjaer wanted four top-tier players to make United serious contenders for the Premier League and Champions League. He got just one, Donny van de Beek, plus two teenage wingers and free agent Edinson Cavani, 33.
There is much admiration among United’s fan base for Mauricio Pochettino, still unemployed after leaving Tottenham a year ago, but there is skepticism as to whether the Argentine would get the players to challenge Guardiola and Klopp. Mourinho has not said much about his time at Old Trafford, but he did say: “One, time has spoken. Two, the problems are still there.” In other words, not all problems can be solved simply by firing the manager.
Coronavirus restrictions will be relaxed in Manchester on December 16, and Saturday’s Manchester derby could be the last game at Old Trafford to be played behind closed doors. Given United’s ability to get excited and fail at any moment, it is difficult to know what the mood will be when the fans return to Leeds on December 20 or if, after losing in Leipzig, the derby will be challenging or disastrous.
There is only one certainty. It will take more than a bad week to put Solskjaer on the “brink”.