With just two unconvincing wins in their last eight games and a Manchester derby to come, many would argue that Ole has lost control of the wheel.
It seemed hopeful at first, with Solskjær’s first league loss coming against Arsenal, a whole 83 days after his appointment. But after a string of languid performances, there is no doubt that United are struggling and there are some potential reasons for this collapse.
Solskjær has gone from playing dynamic football and tactically overcoming his opponents to ceding possession in favour of attacking on the counter. With the surge of muscle injuries and players looking visibly weary post-60 minutes, fatigue is evidently a reason for this.
The players which Solskjær has depended on so heavily have burnt out so it is no surprise that United’s performances have followed the same downward trend. Switching from a lethargic Jose Mourinho system to a high-pressing one was always bound to come with its physical challenges.
PPDA (passes per defensive action) is a statistic used to gauge a team’s intensity in their press by measuring the number of passes they allow the opposition to make. United’s average PPDA in Solskjær’s first four league games was 8.23. A far cry from Mourinho’s tenure, where PPDAs north of 15 against lesser opposition were not out of the ordinary.
Solskjær’s use of the high-press, while a joy for the spectator, has weighed his side down significantly – especially with recent results considered. This is evidenced in United’s meagre xG (expected goals) of 1.87 in their last five league games.
Thinking back to United’s hectic February schedule, a high-tempo pressing system was never going to be sustainable if Solskjær wanted to steer United back on track – especially for the remainder of the season. Everton exploited this in their superiority over United on Sunday.
United’s recent slump was typified by the space which Nemanja Matić afforded Gylfi Sigurðsson leading to Everton’s second. The home side were sharper on and off the ball and took the game to a United side which looked shaky from the first whistle.
While in theory the blame for this burnout lies with Solskjær, the Norwegian has done more with this United squad than many would have anticipated. Even the most ardent of Reds would not have predicted Solskjær to win 70% of United’s league games, let alone climb back into the top four battle.
Same ingredients, different chefs
Solskjær has reached an impasse with certain players in the squad, particularly, with Ander Herrera. When asked on the Spaniard’s fitness, the United manager rather cheekily suggested that “the future might have been worrying [Herrera] and maybe that’s part of the reason he’s injured”. Alarm bells started to ring just before the Everton game, where the United manager appeared less jovial than usual, stating that his players “need a reality check”.
Perhaps Solskjær’s resuscitation of United was a result of new manager syndrome. This refers to players running harder, being more tactically flexible and playing better for their new manager – especially when the last manager was Jose Mourinho. Players were delighted to see the back of a manager they had no trust in, replaced by a club legend laden with tropes like “he knows the club” and “he wants to play the United way”.
Those initial feelings of delight are in direct contrast to the current feelings, with Solskjær publicly questioning his player’s commitment and attitude. While a good craftsman should never blame his tools, how good can said craftsman be with tools of such wavering levels of quality? Further, how good can any craftsman be with tools acquired by other craftsmen to fulfil other functions?
The sentiment around the United fanbase has long been that these current players are not good enough. Likewise, Solskjær has realised that a large portion of this United team are not the right fit for his United team. The fact that United fans are calling for several reinforcements in multiple positions shows how lacking this United team is.
The idea that the club failed to back previous managers in the transfer market is largely unfounded. In fact, the very reason why this current United squad is so abject of quality is a testament to United backing their manager’s poor taste in players. This current squad is essentially an amalgamation of three different philosophies.
On Match of The Day 2, Jermaine Jenas aptly said “[Solskjær] has got a mixture of players with an eye on leaving United and a mixture of players who aren’t good enough to play for United”.
Moving forward it will be interesting to see what kind of taste in players Solskjær has. I imagine he has made the club aware of his intended summer transfer targets and this probably factored in the timing of his permanent appointment.
Solskjær’s recent tactical vapidity can be directly attributed to his side’s decline in fitness, intensity and attitude. While this is a result of the Norwegian’s over-reliance on certain players, Solskjær can only do so much with this current crop.
United were 12 points off the Champions League spots, one point above newly-promoted Wolves and fresh from a crushing Liverpool defeat when Solskjær arrived. Now, United are within reach of Champions League football, with half of their remaining fixtures against two of the bottom three.
But with Manchester City and Chelsea just four days apart to deal with first, it is vital that Solskjær gets a strategy in place to return Champions League nights to Old Trafford. The rebuilding job starts yet again for United as they continue to stumble through this post-Ferguson era.