While the Norwegian would appear to be in no immediate danger of losing his job, there are some potentially tenure-defining fixtures on the horizon
Mauricio Pochettino’s abrupt departure from Tottenham Hotspur has suddenly put Ole Gunnar Solskjaer under pressure.
Manchester United’s Premier League match on Sunday against Sheffield United will be a chance to contrast Chris Wilder’s achievements leading the newly promoted side with the United boss and his recent struggles.
Wilder has overachieved compared to expectations, taking Sheffield United to fifth in the Premier League and in with a chance of Europa League football at this early stage of the season. That may require them to keep up unsustainable form, but regardless, a top-half finish in May would represent a remarkable outcome, and the club are far from a long ball team.
Solskjaer’s United lie one point behind in seventh, and victory could lift them into fifth by the end of the weekend. However, that still represents failure for Manchester United and success for Sheffield United. There are plenty of holes in the United squad – and excuses to be pointed at – but they are far from meeting expectations.
The summer transfer window addressed three key positions, and had Paul Pogba maintained his fitness and improved his form, then there is a good chance they would be a better position than they are now. Instead, they have managed just four league victories, and have an equal number of draws and defeats. Despite the hundreds of millions squandered on the playing staff since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, this is a worryingly beatable team.
Pochettino’s track record at Tottenham demonstrates much of what is missing from Solskjaer’s tenure. If United fail to impress at Bramall Lane, it would be little surprise if attention turns to what the Argentine might offer if he were installed at Old Trafford.
The Norwegian was questioned about the threat posed by Pochettino’s availability in his pre-match press conference on Friday but was not giving too much away.
“It [speculation] doesn’t bother me at all, I’ve got the best job in the world and if you’re in or out of a job you want this job, so it doesn’t really matter whatever happens around it,” Solskjaer said.
“I’ve got to focus on my job at Manchester United, do it as well as we can, speak with Ed [Woodward] and the owners all the time about how we move forward and that doesn’t change if others change managers.”
With Spurs, Pochettino developed players such as Kyle Walker, Dele Alli, Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen and Harry Winks. There are too many youngsters to mention who dramatically improved in their time under Pochettino, from the back of the pitch to the front.
As he did that, he operated on a tight budget, sometimes a non-existent one. He provided attacking football and there was more than just one famous comeback. They might not have won anything tangible, but there was an obvious steel for much of his time that only recently dissolved.
Given Daniel Levy was hardly enthusiastic with his support in the transfer window, it is reasonable to give Pochettino the benefit of the doubt. It might have been time for him to move on as his ideas failed to inspire the same group of players year after year, but the focus of the blame should probably be aimed elsewhere.
Solskjaer’s side have produced their own spectacular recoveries, such as the triumph in Paris last season, but they do appear mentally vulnerable should they go behind, and they have neither the tactical nor physical resilience to grind out victories when the three points are up for grabs. Spark, imagination and the inspiration to do something special, outside of Daniel James, have been absent since the start of the season.
Watching young players blossom with Pochettino provides evidence that he can take United’s academy products and make them integral to the current first team. Solskjaer has been unreasonably criticised for his reticence to introduce youngsters into a struggling team, but only Scott McTominay has started to offer significantly more than he did in his first few games.
There is reason for optimism for Brandon Williams and Marcus Rashford, but neither of them make an undeniable case that they will flourish particularly under their current boss. Mason Greenwood’s startling early progress, meanwhile, has been checked.
The next month could break Solskjaer, and having already met with Ferguson the last time the job was available, it would be no surprise if Pochettino was maneuvered into position to take over. For Woodward, it would be another chance to employ a manager already out of work, avoiding the kind of protracted negotiations that he generally tries to avoid.
United could easily lose on Sunday, and in December there are successive games against Tottenham and Manchester City. Jose Mourinho will have his chance to show Woodward what he is missing, an opportunity he is unlikely to turn down. Pep Guardiola’s heightened, frantic agitation will be on full display if his side continue to stutter, but a win over his city rivals in a derby would ease his distraction. From potentially fifth, and closing in on fourth, Solskjaer could end up back in mid-table.
Manchester United had appeared to have turned a corner before the international break, but that improvement is fragile. Confidence and form go hand in hand, and one often reinforces the other. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Solskjaer will hope that a win over Sheffield United will buttress his position, because a defeat could be a precursor to another miserable episode – and this time it could be his last.
Pochettino may end up at Bayern Munich, Juventus or Real Madrid if he wants a club that can match his ambitions, but his spectre now hangs over Old Trafford.