“Three or four days are not going to change a whole lot,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said as the Manchester United manager looked ahead to the visit of Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday night, and Saturday’s trip to champions Manchester City. Perhaps Solskjaer genuinely believes that but, just as two unexpected wins would provide a most timely shot in the arm, so a couple of defeats would further intensify the scrutiny on his future, and doubtless harden the clamour in some circles for Mauricio Pochettino to take over.
It was Jose Mourinho, the man he replaced at United and with whom he will come face to face on the Old Trafford touchline this week, who poked fun last month at Solskjaer’s habit of talking repeatedly about “the future”. That was probably no surprise coming from someone who has always prioritised the here and now over the long-term and whose Old Trafford reign will look better the longer United labour under Solskjaer.
What United need is some balance between those two outlooks but, the more Solskjaer talks, the more he sounds like a more distant predecessor at United, David Moyes, who was lulled into thinking he had six years in which to rebuild the club only to be ditched after 10 months.
Will it be any different for Solskjaer? He certainly seems to think so, and the noises in private and public have been very supportive, even if no one has gone as far as to guarantee he will still be in situ next summer, regardless of what happens over the remainder of this season.
“I’m not going to tell anyone how to run their football club but I think everyone knows continuity is one of the keys of success,” Solskjaer said. “Some clubs have more patience than others, some clubs don’t have that time and continuity.
“For me, with Man United, we have a plan in place and hopefully we can get the results to speed it up. Sometimes it doesn’t go at the speed you want to but it’s still going in the right direction. There are different aspects to this – it’s on the pitch, it’s behind the scenes, it’s what’s happening in the club.”
After a litany of mistakes, United believe they have finally got their recruitment right, the early evidence of that being last summer’s purchases of Daniel James, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire. But one look at the midfield that is likely to line-up against Spurs – Andreas Pereira, Fred and probably Jesse Lingard – suggests they should not be patting themselves on the back too hard.
Injuries to Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay have highlighted the folly of not replacing Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera, two experienced midfielders, just as the failure to bring in another striker after the departures of Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez is another reason the club have made their worst start to a season for 31 years.
Fail to win either game against Tottenham and City and Solskjaer will have just six victories in 24 league matches as permanent manager to his name, or a win every four games. Extrapolated over the course of a 38-game season, that equates to fewer than 10 wins. Cardiff City, Solskjaer’s old club, went down with 10 victories last season. It is a lousy record and, for all the good intentions, the reality in a results-driven business is that Solskjaer must buy himself the time to implement the long-term plans he has in mind.
Pochettino, Unai Emery and Quique Sanchez Flores have lost their jobs at Tottenham, Arsenal and Watford respectively in recent weeks but Solskjaer says the flurry of sackings have not left him fearing for his own future.
“No, it doesn’t make me more concerned,” he said. “I’m just focusing on my job and that’s just doing as well as I can – look forward to the next game and look long term, plan things with the board.
“It’s never nice to see your colleagues lose their jobs – three in a very short space of time. Sometimes you have luck, sometimes you don’t, but it doesn’t make me any more concerned that it’s December.”
In Solskjaer’s defence, he inherited a lot of problems. Problems so bad that a club with the division’s biggest wage bill should now be eight points adrift of the top four and 22 points behind leaders Liverpool? No, but turning things around was not going to be a quick fix. Solskjaer stopped short of sticking the boot into Mourinho on Tuesday but he established almost immediately after arriving that there was a huge rebuilding job to be done.
“I don’t really have to go into that – I think it was clear to see,” Solskjaer said when asked what sort of state the club was in a year ago, before adding that he already has a “clear picture” of what his squad is going to look like by the end of next summer.
Whether Solskjaer will still be in charge by then will surely be influenced by what happens over the coming months. The coming days certainly offer an opportunity to earn a little breathing space and, while Solskjaer expects Mourinho to get a warm reception from Old Trafford, there should be no shortage of added motivation among those players who were relieved to see the back of the Portuguese. “We’ve got a great chance now over the next three days to turn people’s perceptions,” Solskjaer said.