Ed Woodward doesn’t like the phrase “on the brink.” It’s too simple, according to Manchester United’s executive vice-chairman, because it implies the next result can determine whether he will back or sack a manager. He has dismissed three since getting the top job at Old Trafford in 2012 — David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho — but never, he says, because of one result. Each time, he insists, he looked at the bigger picture or the journey, the path, the trajectory — whatever you want to call it.
And that’s why he has told those closest to him this week that the axe is not hovering over Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. In fact, Woodward remains convinced 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 has been a difficult 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 defeat to RB Leipzig.
Manchester City are next up at Old Trafford on Saturday. While Solskjaer has a good record against Pep Guardiola, winning three of their 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 demoralising setback in midweek.
Solskjaer is confident he has the long-term backing of Woodward and the board, but he doesn’t have his head in the sand, either. He has said himself that at a club with the ambition of United, you’re never more than six games away from the sack. Crashing out of the Champions League combined with a heavy derby defeat and a poor run over Christmas, would leave Solskjaer on shaky ground come January.
But Woodward sees it differently. Privately, he points to statistics like being just five points off the top of the table with a game in hand, and only Liverpool picking up more Premier League points since the end of January. He has told Solskjaer he is prepared to weather setbacks — defeat to Leipzig is probably the most significant since his permanent appointment in March 2019 — and, most importantly, that the days of hire-and-fire are over. Moyes was given less than a season, Van Gaal got two years and Mourinho was sacked after 30 months. With each transition came a change of team identity and an alternative recruitment strategy. Woodward believes that Solskjaer has solved both of those problems and does not want to start again from scratch.
Simply put, it means that as long as short-term results do not make his position untenable, Solskjaer will be backed. There were murmurings, leaks and rumours in the days and weeks leading up to the dismissals of Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho, but even after the dismal defeat in Germany on Tuesday, there has been nothing to suggest he is in imminent danger.
Yet not all supporters have as much faith. They will never turn on the 47-year-old en masse after what he achieved as a player, but there are concerns about his CV. Three of United’s Premier League rivals in the northwest of England are all managed by coaches who have won the Champions League — Guardiola at City, Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool and Carlo Ancelotti at Everton. Then there is Mourinho at Tottenham, and looking past Mikel Arteta’s difficult start to this season at Arsenal, he has already won the FA Cup after less than a year in charge. Solskjaer, meanwhile, has two Norwegian titles with Molde and been relegated from the Premier League with Cardiff.
Other supporters insist Solskjaer has been let down by the Glazers, Woodward and other figures in senior management. After finishing third last season and reaching three cup semifinals, Solskjaer wanted four top players to turn United into serious contenders for the Premier League and the Champions League. He got just one — Donny van de Beek — plus two teenage wingers and 33-year-old free agent Edinson Cavani.
There is plenty of admiration among United’s fan base for Mauricio Pochettino, still unemployed after leaving Tottenham a year ago, but there is skepticism about whether the Argentine would get the players to challenge Guardiola and Klopp. Mourinho has not said much about his time at Old Trafford, but did say this: “One, time has spoken. Two, the problems are still there.” In other words, not every issue can be solved by simply sacking the manager.
Coronavirus restrictions are set to be relaxed in Manchester on Dec. 16, and Saturday’s Manchester derby could be the last game at Old Trafford played behind closed doors. Given United’s ability to thrill and flop at any time, it’s difficult to know what the mood will be like when supporters return against Leeds on Dec. 20 or whether, after losing in Leipzig, the derby performance will be defiant or disastrous.
There is only one certainty. It will take more than a bad week to leave Solskjaer on the “brink.”