There’s a looming sense of deja-vu at Manchester United as we approach the two-year anniversary of Jose Mourinho’s sacking. It was just before 9 am on December 18 when a press release confirmed that the Portuguese had been relieved of his duties, with the club sitting sixth in the league, 19 points behind leaders Liverpool.
The timing was surprising but the decision was not; Mourinho had to go. His dismissal had followed weeks of debate and discussion whether he was the right man for the job – the very same kind of external conversations that are now being had about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
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We have not yet reached the point of no return with the Norwegian, though. Despite United’s poor start to the season, there have been encouraging wins, most notably over Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig in the Champions League.
Both victories once again underlined that Solskjaer is capable of masterminding big wins over big sides. However, the concern is the inconsistency that has characterized his tenure. United travel to Goodison Park on Saturday afternoon looking to bounce back from disappointing defeats against Arsenal and Istanbul Basaksehir.
However, while there is a concern at the board level over United’s current position of 15th in the Premier League, with just two wins from their opening six games, it is understood that Solskjaer’s job is not under immediate threat.
There has, and continues to be, strong support for the manager, with the club still committed to a long-term rebuilding project headed by the Norwegian. However, at what point would that commitment waver? How many more defeats would it take before Solskjaer’s position is thrown into doubt?
As it stands, he isn’t being pushed towards the exit door but the pressure is mounting. There is an acceptance that the last two performances were simply not good enough, meaning a bad result at Everton is only going to place Solskjaer under further scrutiny, especially with Mauricio Pochettino lurking in the background.
It is no secret that United are long-time admirers of the former Tottenham boss, so it was inevitable that he would again become a talking point after he appeared on Sky Sports on Monday night and spoke about his desire to return to work in the Premier League.
The Argentine would undoubtedly relish an opportunity to take the reins at Old Trafford. However, United insist that no contact has been made with Pochettino or his people about succeeding Solskjaer at the helm. There is a collective desire at United for Solskjaer to be a success but there is no denying that he now has to really prove his credentials for arguably the top job in English football.
The club has invested over £317 million ($416m) in 10 signings during his reign and while there were complaints from the United manager over a lack of strength in depth following the defeat to Sevilla in last season’s Europa League semi-final, his squad has been strengthened for the 2020-21 campaign.
Indeed, Solskjaer has already had ample opportunity to rotate and rest players this term, so he cannot complain about a lack of a pre-season, given so many other clubs have been hit harder by the congested nature of the fixture list.
After the shambolic first goal in Istanbul on Wednesday, the manager held his hands up and took responsibility for a shock defeat. It was a noble but bold tactic from the Norwegian to admit it was his fault his team defended like “Under-10s”, as former United midfielder Paul Scholes put it.
However, United didn’t just struggle at the back in Turkey. The whole side appeared to lack any type of structure or plan – which has become a worryingly frequent problem this season, and one that Solskjaer simply has to solve as soon as possible.
The last United boss to arrive at Goodison under intense pressure was David Moyes in 2014, and he didn’t survive. A man dressed as the Grim Reaper – a publicity stunt from Paddy Power – was watching on from the stands and it proved a bad omen for the Scot, who was sacked two days after his side’s 2-0 loss to Everton.
There will be no such figure lurking in the background on Saturday. Solskjaer is no dead man walking. However, as he returns to the scene of one of his worst defeats as the United manager, he will definitely feel the specter of Pochettino breathing down his neck.