Just under a decade ago, Manchester United were Premier League champions, were a force in Europe having reached the UEFA Champions League final in 2011 and were considered to be the top destination for players all over the globe who dreamed of playing in England.
In the present-day scenario, though, things have changed beyond recognition. They went from battling for the top spot of the table to fighting for a finish in a European football spot, which is a clear motif of their downfall since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson. The board, led by executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, have tried everything from hiring a Premier League-winning manager to signing Champions League and World Cup-winning talent in order to stabilize what appears to be a sinking ship.
Yet, somehow, they haven't found even the most remote sense of stability regardless of the stellar names, large fees, and false dawns during this period.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is the latest victim claimed by the hotseat at Old Trafford, succeeding the likes of former Everton manager David Moyes, former Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal, and three-time Premier League winner Jose Mourinho.
All three of the Norwegian's predecessors saw their time at Old Trafford come to a relatively bitter end. Moyes was sacked after leaving the club in 7th place and van Gaal was sacked after a 5th place finish in his second season. The Portuguese was, as most chapters of Mourinho's folklore go, shown the door in his third season after losing the dressing room and feuds with a seemingly incompetent board.
Solskjaer, too, appears to be living on borrowed time at the helm of his beloved club, largely due to the Red Devils' inconsistent and often lacklustre performances. However, there is more than what meets the eye in this situation. He has overseen 47 Premier League games so far with United, winning 22, drawing 12 and losing 13 of those.
In previous cases, managers came to Old Trafford naturally to win titles with the club as well as enhance what were resumes that managers would be proud of. Even Moyes, undisputedly the most unsuccessful coach the club have had since Sir Alex, had an 11-year spell at Everton to show for, where the Scotsman consistently delivered impressive finishes in relation to a club of the Toffees' stature. For this reason, decisions that they make could vastly be influenced by their personal stance and not necessarily with the club's philosophy and best interests in mind.
In Solskjaer's case, though, it isn't as simple as it was in the past. He is a coach with little to no experience at the highest level and despite the Norwegian's unimpressive spell in terms of results, it is unlikely that this will have permanent consequences on his managerial career. What this means is that Solskjaer, who is just 46, has the power to call the shots that previous managers didn't have. He doesn't have anything to lose, and what he's doing in the process is creating an ideal platform for a potential new manager by cleaning out the house.
In what was his first summer in charge of Manchester United, Solskjaer oversaw the departures of 6 senior players in then-captain Antonio Valencia, Matteo Darmian, Ander Herrera, Alexis Sanchez and Chris Smalling (both on loan deals) and a blockbuster €70m deal for Romelu Lukaku to join Inter Milan.
In the winter, he sanctioned the departure of incidentally another club captain, Ashley Young, to join his former teammate Lukaku at San Siro and also Marcos Rojo, who joined Estudiantes in the Argentine top-flight on a loan deal.
United's outgoings under the Norwegian, tallying 8 this season and 9 if Marouane Fellaini's departure to Shandong Luneng Taishan last season is considered, comprise of an average age of just above 30 years. These were players that they parted ways with due to several reasons ranging from unrealistic wage demands, demanding a bigger role in the squad, or simply not being good enough to play for the club.
Regardless of the reasons, it could be argued that most of the players that were shipped out under the Norwegian needed to be moved on. These were players purchased by managers in the past, with a different philosophy at play at the time, and for qualities that were suitable to past managerial philosophies. Money wasn't even the object of importance here as much as the fact that the squad of players needed to be reconfigured.
The 9 senior departures were followed up with just 3 senior team players purchased in the market in the summer, namely Daniel James, Aaron-Wan Bissaka and club captain Harry Maguire.
This glaring difference between the number of incomings and outgoings, coupled with the fact that no replacement was signed for Lukaku, were the initial warning signs of Solskjaer's reign. Bruno Fernandes was all but done in the summer until the club backed out and refused to pay Sporting Lisbon's asking price. United lived to regret that decision as an injury-stricken season saw Paul Pogba, Scott McTominay and more on the sidelines. Injuries left them with no choice but to go back in for the Portuguese playmaker.
The fact that Solskjaer saw it fit to replace one of United's top goalscorers over the last couple of years with the academy-bred Mason Greenwood goes on to display their unwillingness to spend money in the summer.
In the winter, their response to Rashford's injury was another interesting thread of thought. With 14 league goals this season, Rashford was head and shoulders above every other attacker at the club and his season-ending injury meant that United had no option but to sign a striker. Yet, in all of world football's talented strikers, they decided to go shopping in the Chinese top-flight for former Watford striker Odion Ighalo. A signing which, in all fairness, was made to make up the numbers.
The nature of United's response to a massive injury such as Rashford's speaks volumes of both the club's and the coach's situations. More importantly, it also signifies that the board have ceded this season to be a write-off.
Even with the two winter signings, the average age of the Norwegian's major incomings this season is just at 24.6. Throw in the likes of Greenwood and Brandon Williams brought in from the youth systems and that number goes even lower.
The major talking point amidst all this is that a club such as Manchester United cannot possibly be content with the squad they have at hand, both in terms of quality and quantity, despite the infinite media briefings and post or pre-match interviews. They have attempted to fill the voids in the first team with academy players and haggling over new signings is a telling sign of a potential revamp come summer.
With someone like a Mauricio Pochettino potentially available in the summer, or any suitable coach for that matter, that could indeed be the case. What a new manager will find at the club upon his arrival is a young, hungry, and determined squad of players. That's the brand of footballers that Solskjaer wants to harbour at the club regardless of what it could cost him, including his current job. The brigade of 'young, hungry, British' players that he represents is essentially what the club wants to move towards in the coming years.
Added to this, the squad is likely to be fairly depleted, allowing the new manager to bring in players that fit his philosophy as well as help the club in the long run.
Despite the unforgiving criticism, the Norwegian is cleaning out the house and enabling Manchester United to finally get the squad reset that they've been crying out for. Despite the near-unbearable football and consequent results, it is what he's done so far behind the scenes that could make the difference in the long-run.
Should he leave in the summer, which is widely believed to be the ultimate outcome, the fact that he shipped more deadwood out of the club than anyone else will be remembered as his pièce de résistance.Published 21 Feb 2020, 19:34 IST