There would be three managerial departures in the top two divisions of English football on a weekend where Ole Gunnar Solskjaer led Manchester United to a humbling defeat against Manchester City. None of those three managerial changes would involve him. Premier League peers Norwich City and Aston Villa both decided enough was enough over the weekend, as did Championship side Middlesbrough. With an international break ahead, a number of clubs felt like it was time to address what wasn’t working. In the process they have shown up the Old Trafford decision-makers who are overseeing a run of horrible performances and just one win in six league games.
Daniel Farke was told his services were no longer required in the afterglow of his side’s first Premier League win of the season, a 2-1 victory at the Brentford Community Stadium. Dean Smith was let go on Sunday, presiding over his final game in Friday’s 1-0 defeat to Southampton. Both had been long-term coaches who had overseen promotions from the Championship during their spell. Both also remain loved by the majority of the fans they are leaving behind. Neil Warnock is more of an outlier, winning few friends with his brand of football at the Riverside Stadium. But even his sacking showed less sentiment than United are displaying, coming as it did in the same week he reached a British record 1,602 games in management.
If some of these dismissals were surprising, it’s safe to say a Solskjaer sacking would have raised very few eyebrows in the wake of the City defeat. The Norwegian seemed to cross over into ‘dead man walking’ territory after his side were humbled by Liverpool a fortnight ago. A win over the similarly-desperate Tottenham Hotspur did not quell the disquiet. Scraping a 2-2 draw with Atalanta due to some late Cristiano Ronaldo heroics only increased fears that Manchester City make United’s crisis terminal.
In the immediate aftermath of their comprehensive 2-0 victory at Old Trafford, it appeared they had done just that. If Solskjaer had grabbed a branch on his fall from the tree against Liverpool, surely that branch had been snapped by Pep Guardiola’s men. But still Solskjaer holds on, and it does not appear that the United board has a tree surgeon amongst them. Reports emerged on Monday that Solskjaer was likely to remain in charge for the visit to Vicarage Road in two weeks.
It is hard to picture another Premier League club where this situation would be allowed to continue. Norwich and Villa have reacted to situations that still see them closer to realising their ambitions than this current United team. Norwich have been favourites for the drop since the opening week, while Villa are looking to prevent their positive start being completely eroded by a relegation battle. For United though, their ambitions are a dot on the horizon. The club sit nine points off the top of the table, the expected title challenge has already evaporated. The signings of Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane were supposed to help United kick on from a second-placed finish last term. Instead they have become mired in the regression. United sit top of a modest Champions League group, but the performances suggest a capable team would be too much for them in the knockout phase.
United’s kingmakers, still led for the time being by executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, would argue there are no obvious replacements available for a club of their stature. That it is easier to replace a coach at a club staring relegation in the face, or one battling to return to midtable than a club with title ambitions. Sceptics would perhaps point to the fact that a Premier League-winning manager has just taken the reins at Spurs, or that a manager who has won three Champions Leagues remains out of work since leaving Real Madrid. Antonio Conte and Zinedine Zidane have both been linked with the vacancy, as has Leicester City boss Brendan Rodgers and former Schalke manager Ralf Rangnick. Conte is obviously a no-go now, but it is inaccurate to suggest keeping faith in Solskjaer while the team crumbles around him is the only option.
It is the only option United are willing to take at this point. The board appear hopeful that the international break, and a relatively soft fixture on the other side of it, will keep the wolves from United’s door for a while longer. Whether a bold show of faith or the ultimate capitulation to passivity, their strategy will be severely criticised if the Red Devils fail to beat Watford in their next game.