Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is aware.
He’s aware that he currently has two jobs at Manchester United. He’s aware that his personal feelings — being a fan of Manchester United — are most certainly going to conflict with his professional responsibilities, being the Manchester United manager.
Like all of us fans, Solskjaer wants to get Manchester United back to the top. He wants to rid the club of the mistake they’ve made in previous years. No more chasing players who are better for commercial reasons than football reasons. No more signing players who are just interested in a paycheck.
For Solskjaer, getting rid of the negative influences in the dressing room was the biggest priority. If he had to get rid of all of them without bringing in replacements, so be it. This was what it was going to take to ultimately bring United back to the top.
But Solskjaer is also the manager of Manchester United and he knows what that means. Despite laying out the plans for a rebuild and a ‘long term project’ he still needs to get results. He knows that depleting the squad will make that objective all the more difficult, but he can’t publicly spar with his bosses either.
Never has that been more true than now. Six Premier League wins since March is simply not good enough. Despite publicly claiming he’s not worried about it, he knows that the cloud of Mauricio Pochettino is hovering directly over his head. And that cloud only gets bigger with every dropped point.
Despite the walls seemingly closing in on him, Solskjaer has continued to put the club first. Earlier this season when Anthony Martial went down with an injury, Solskjaer lined Marcus Rashford up at center forward every game. He did this, despite this not being Rashford’s best position, and having highly touted youngster Mason Greenwood available.
But Greenwood was just 17 at the time, and truth be told he wasn’t ready. Solskjaer said as much after Greenwood’s great game in the Europa League against Partizan.
In Martial’s absence United averaged just 10.83 shots and 0.67 goals per game (down from 14 shots and 1.88 goals per game with him). Could United have been better with Mason Greenwood out there rather than some combination of Juan Mata, Andreas Pereira, and Jesse Lingard? Maybe. But instead Solskjaer chose to to prioritize the long term development of the teen even at the possible expense of picking up points in the short term.
That brings us to now.
With Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay injured, and Nemanja Matić either injured or told by Solskjaer to take a hike, United were left with Fred as their available senior midfielder. At this point, no one would have faulted Solskjaer had he thrown 18-year-old James Garner into the mix. After-all, who else could he use? Everyone is hurt!
Except what if Solskjaer didn’t think Garner was ready for the rigors of the Premier League? Garner’s looked good in the brief glimpses we’ve seen of him this year. His skill on the ball is great, his positional awareness is also very good for his age. But playing midfield in the Premier League requires more than just ball skills and positional awareness, and against Astana we got a few glimpses of what Garner lacks.
Look at how easily Garner gets bodied off the ball. And this is against Astana! The Premier League is far more physical and at 18, it’s perfectly conceivable that Garner just isn’t physically ready to take on the rigors of the Premier League for 90 minutes.
This is ultimately why you have to take, to a degree, Garner’s performances in the U23s with a grain of salt. Yes, he’s playing against players older than him but he’s still not playing against the best U23 players in the country (those guys are already playing in the first team) and he’s certainly not playing against men.
Maybe if United had a physical midfield enforcer like Scott McTominay next to him, playing Garner would be a little more palatable. But with only the less physical Fred available, it’s understandable that didn’t seem like a great idea.
And so, rather than risk the development of Garner, Solskjaer turned to Andreas Pereira, an attacking midfielder who isn’t good at attacking but is known for his defensive work rate.
Just because a player is known for their defensive abilities from the number 10 role doesn’t mean he’s good defensively. There’s a huge difference between defending from the front and defending as a midfielder and that was evident right from the get go against Villa.
Just 30 seconds into the game Pereira clips playmaker Jack Grealish. Why he’s even chasing him down is unclear, but once he’s that far out of position he has no choice but to foul.
A few minutes later.
At this point it’s deliberate. Pereira knows he can’t defend and is just looking to hack it up in the midfield all game. What’s even the point of this foul? Fred and Aaron Wan-Bissaka are right on top of Grealish — all Pereira has to do is trap him.
It would come as no surprise that a few minutes later Pereira found himself in a one on one situation, and as if he was out for personal revenge, Grealish made him look silly.
Let’s look at that from another angle.
Oh that is just dirty.
And don’t forget about Pereira giving the ball away for Sheffield’s second goal a week before.
Remember, Solskjaer is aware. He knows that Pereira isn’t a defensive midfielder. He saw it last year both from afar and from up close.
José Mourinho played him there on the opening day of the season last year against Leicester, where, despite Paul Pogba on the pitch doing things like this
United were still outshot by Leicester 8-6 on the day. They simply didn’t have a midfield that could get the ball to Pogba. The following week Mourinho yanked Pereira at halftime against Brighton, and dropped him from the matchday squad a week later. He made just two more substitute appearances under Mourinho.
The first league start Pereira got under Solskjaer came in the number eight role against Burnley. He was terrible and was removed after 63 minutes.
That day United took 17 shots that day. 12 of those shots came from inside the box (good!) but of those 12, 9 came after Pereira left the field and only one more shot was taken from outside the box.
What does that matter? Better shots lead to a higher probability of scoring, and getting better shots, starts with having good midfielders. In the 63 minutes Pereira was on the field, United mustered seven shots, and four of them came from outside the box. Solskjaer took notice and Pereira didn’t see the pitch again until injuries wiped out Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard, and Ander Herrera.
Despite knowing all this, Solskjaer trotted out Pereira as the central midfielder twice in a week. Even though it was clearly not working, the only time he took Pereira off was to replace him with Jesse Lingard, also not a central midfielder. It seemed like Garner was on the bench for emergencies only, a clear sign that Solskjaer doesn’t deem him ready.
In a way, Solskjaer shoehorned himself into this. Once James Garner got on the plane for the Astana match, he immediately became unavailable for the Villa game. When you’re only 18, unless your body is used to playing at a high level twice a week, you need more recovery time than the older players. Playing 90 minutes on Thursday, then making an 11 hour plane journey home, would not have been a recipe for success for Garner.
In the perfect world, Solskjaer would have experimented with Andreas in midfield against Astana, but what if Garner had flopped against Sheffield? Then Solskjaer would have had to do the same thing with Andreas — play him against Astana and again on Sunday.
It’s always tough with young players because we never really know when they’re ready. Garner, Angel Gomes, and Tahith Chong dominate the academy levels, but look very mortal when playing against grown men. Marcus Rashford couldn’t even get a look until three forwards got injured and he never looked back. It’s truly different for every player.
Would United have been better these last two weeks with Garner playing instead of Pereira? Maybe. I like to think they would have, and I’m sure 95 percent of you would agree, but we ultimately don’t know for sure.
But let’s say Solskjaer’s right. Let’s say Garner isn’t ready yet and throwing him out there next to Fred with a depleted squad would do him more long term harm than good. That’s a very selfless move from Solskjaer. By making that decision and risking short term results, he’s almost ensuring that it’ll be someone else benefitting from the fruits of James Garner.
Part of Ole’s job is to get Manchester United back to the top. That’s not going to happen this year or next, but he can build a team that can do it in two years, even if those decisions end up costing him his job.
That’s Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, putting his fandom and the long term health of Manchester United ahead of his professional career. And for that, he should be commended.