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08th Jan 2020

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is the world’s most expensive babysitter at Manchester United

Kyle Picknell

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s job seems less about results and tangible improvement than it is about spin and PR, pretending everything is getting better even as it is clear it’s getting worse

“We’re just going to go out there, enjoy it, give our best and see where it takes us,” said Solskjaer before last night’s dismantling at the hands of bitter rivals Manchester City. As rallying cries go, it was hardly Achilles addressing his Myrmidons. In fact, it’s the kind of thing you’d expect to hear from a Cub Scout leader at a national conker championships, quietly tempering the expectations of his helplessly bright-eyed young troop before they get their arses handed to them by vastly superior conker setups from up and down the country. This was a Cup semi-final against Manchester City, no less. And yet you had the actual manager of Manchester United treating it like Celebrity Bake Off.

Solskjaer, of course, was given his just des(s)erts – thank you – in the form of a first-half rollicking, his apparently exuberant Manchester United team, ‘energy’ and ‘youth’ had been the pre-match buzzwords, as they always are, no match for an actual high-class footballing side. One with, you know, a clear gameplan. A tactical setup more advanced than ‘hit them on the counter’. A real sense of themselves both as individuals and as a team, but perhaps even more than that, a full understanding of exactly what their manager expects from them. It was 3-0 at the break but it could have been anything up to seven.

At half-time Solskjaer introduced Nemanja Matic for H. G. Wells’ Invisible Man, or Jesse Lingard as he’s more commonly known, and presumably told his players to try a bit harder. Their performance did improve, and they even scored a goal, but it was still quite alarming how comfortable Manchester City were despite their opponent’s renewed efforts and the sense that they didn’t so much take their foot off the gas as plonk both of them on the dashboard and light a cigarette. A flurry of clear chances still came their way and 3-1, in the end, seemed like a minor miracle. United had one shot in their opponent’s box during the match. City had 13.

Which brings me to the point, that Solskjaer’s job doesn’t seem to be to develop the team. To improve the players. To delve into this hodge-podge squad of trumped-up mediocrity and find something resembling a clear, effective way of playing that brings consistent performances, and in time, consistent results.

Instead, his role is akin to that of the world’s most expensive babysitter. Last week it was covering for Paul Pogba, attempting to convince the media and fans that “he is actually injured, I promise” and didn’t just fancy some time off before his move to Madrid this month. Which, in fairness, was the truth, even if nobody could quite believe it.

Now it will be Phil Jones, brought back into the starting lineup for the first time since a quintessentially disastrous 45 minutes against Sheffield United two months ago, who needs protection from all the vicious, vicious memes out there after yet another football match spent bounding about like he’s perpetually undergoing a sudden and excruciating transformation into a werewolf. He has been having to defend the contribution of Jesse Lingard all season, no mean feat given the data available: 0 goals, 0 assists and most telling of all, 0 Milly Rocks in the year of our lord 2019. At least outside of the comfort of his own home.

But it’s not just the players he is tasked with cleaning up for. Solskjaer’s job is to project an illusion of competence onto this team, even as they are tumbling backwards down a staircase. It is to hand more starts to Brandon Williams and Mason Greenwood, the two high-beam bright spots for the season so far, even if playing them in a side this dysfunctional might not be the single best thing for their development. It is to reassure the fans that, yes, don’t worry, they are looking at targets in the January window, but it is also to repeat the half-baked excuses from the top once the deadline inevitably passes without so much as a sniff of Jack Grealish, a whiff of James Maddison, a waft of Donny van de Beek. It is to convince that the thrilling, attacking, swashbuckling style of old is back, even as the team regularly fail to break down notorious defensive juggernauts like Bournemouth, Everton and most damning of all, Arsenal.

It is Solskjaer’s job to sit like the meme of the dog in a bowler hat, cup of tea by his side, reassuring everyone that everything is fine as the room burns down around him. He’s nothing more than a smiley, semi-clueless former club legend brought in to placate supporters and follow orders and take the hits where he can until the day he is replaced by someone Manchester United really want to hand the reigns to. Solskjaer himself knows this, the board knows it and the players probably know it, too. That doesn’t just hinder progress. It makes it impossible.

It appears, however, that Solskjaer has come to accept this distorted role of football manager, minus all the actual football management, and has perhaps even embraced it. During United’s 2-0 defeat to Arsenal, yet another deeply sobering affair against a newly appointed manager with far grander ideas for how he wants his team to play, he was roundly mocked for seemingly attempting to mimic Arteta’s hand signals to the players. The reality, of course, is that Solskjaer was simply trying to communicate his own tactical instructions. The problem is when Arteta did it both looked and felt right. Convincing. A small example of the attention to detail and nuance he brings. With Solskjaer it was like watching a balloon artist without the balloon. Or worse, Tony Adams at Granada.

Similarly, after the loss to City, much was made of Solskjaer smiling and giggling during his post-match interview. He didn’t seem happy, as such, but under the effect of a mild tranquiliser. A little bit delirious, a little bit giddy; his eyes were too watery and vacant to go along with the lighthearted optimism his facial expression was trying to convey. In a way, it looked a lot like a dad deep in the midst of divorce proceedings being awoken by his kids and trying to explain why he is sleeping on the sofa for the fourth night in a row. In a way, it looked a lot like a man pretending that everything is fine despite knowing well that it isn’t, fantasising about the day he will get to leave it all behind.

It’s probably time they put him out of his misery and admitted that things at Manchester United are much worse than they are trying to make them seem.