Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is going to take the hit. This is one that he simply cannot overcome.
The anti-Woodward and anti-Glazer chants grew so loud inside Old Trafford on Wednesday night that they’ll be impossible to ignore. Something at Manchester United needs to change.
We only need to look as far as the Glazer-owned Tampa Bay Buccaneers to know where that change will be made. For the last six years the Glazers have employed Jason Licht as the General Manager of their NFL franchise. Under Licht’s watch the Bucs have gone 27-62. They’ve had three different Head Coaches and zero playoff appearances. Licht’s job is safe.
And therefore, it’s safe to assume, so is Ed Woodward’s. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is going to be the fall guy.
This season Solskjaer has been undertaking the massive rebuild United have desperately needed. He’s been cleaning up the messes that Ed Woodward made over the past few years.
He’s been backed by the club in this, at least in terms of letting people go. Alexis Sánchez, Chris Smalling, Romelu Lukaku, Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, Marouane Fellaini, Ander Herrera, and Matteo Darmian have all left the club.
He hasn’t been backed by the club in terms of replacing them, though, and now he’s paying for it.
Only signing three players last summer is simply inexcusable. The club turned away from Paulo Dybala because he didn’t have the right attitude. That’s fine, but why was there no plan B for a striker? The club never really pursued Bruno Fernandes, a decision that I personally find completely justifiable, but what isn’t justifiable is that they didn’t go after a different attacking midfielder.
It’s well known that Solskjaer wanted a fourth signing, specifically a midfielder. The day after Newcastle quoted United a £50m price for Sean Longstaff, Solskjaer began talking up Scott McTominay and Andreas Pereira. In other words, the board told him it ain’t happening.
The board allowed this season to start with United having only four senior midfielders and two senior strikers. That is no one’s fault other than Ed Woodward.
That is what is going to cost Ole Gunnar Solskjaer his job.
And then what happens?
If you think the answer is that at least the team will finally get some tactical instruction, then you haven’t been paying attention to them this year. Tactically, Solskjaer has been very good, changing things up when needed to give his squad a chance to win.
Despite what many would have you believe, this is a well organized team. What Solskjaer has done with the defense is fantastic. Manchester United boast the second lowest expected goals against in the league and have conceded the sixth fewest shots in the league (per AS). Of those shots, 40% of them come from outside the box, the fourth best total in the league. Their expected goals per shot conceded is a mere 0.10, better than all the teams around them. They don’t allow a lot of shots, and they don’t allow good shots.
Manchester United are...— Ted Knutson (@mixedknuts) January 7, 2020
* About the 5th best team in England this year...
* Probably getting better, even without Pogba...
* ...on the first best budget.
* ...made some slightly questionable moves in attack this summer.
* Have a rather good defense, actually. pic.twitter.com/mmaA5CNsJE
With a full strength squad United are probably one of the four best teams in England this year. Without Pogba, they’re about fifth, which is exactly where they are in the table. The fact that four(!) players being injured right now — a very reasonable number of injuries for this time of the year — has completely ruined this team is an indictment of the board for not having a deep enough squad.
So what do you do if you’re Woodward and the board? You hide behind your fall guy. You put the blame on yet another manager, say he’s just not up to the task, and at the very least you get the ‘new manager bump’ from your new appointment right?
Well, probably not. And the Premier League this year is showing us that.
The new manager bump is certainly a thing that exists. Sometimes it’s a new style that allows your best players to maximize their skill a bit more, but most of the time it’s simply a matter of regressing to the mean.
United were always going to get a ‘new manager bump’ last season. Their performances under José Mourinho were getting worse by the season.
In Mourinho’s first season United finished sixth, but according to expected points (xPTS) they should have actually finished fourth.
United were undone by extremely poor finishing, leading to a string of 0-0 and 1-1 draws. And that team had a proven striker in Zlatan Ibrahimović. Paul Pogba hit the bar six times that season.
The following year, United’s attack improved slightly but their defense got incredibly worse. They finished second that season, but according to xPTS, not so much.
You can call finishing second that season “the greatest accomplishment of Mourinho’s career,” or you can call it a historically good season from David de Gea. Either way, the performances on the field got worse.
Things were always going to get worse in year three. By then Mourinho was either trying to get sacked, or had just run out of ideas. He was mad at the board for not delivering on his objectively bad transfer targets and ended up routinely doing things like fielding Nemanja Matić, Scott McTominay, or Ander Herrera as a center-back. The attacking numbers, on a team with objectively better attacking talent than the year before, got worse, while the defense went down the drain as well.
The Reds were sixth when Mourinho was sacked, but once again xPTS said they should have been a bit worse.
They were actually out-performing their expected points, which shows how bad the performances actually were. A new manager bump was inevitable.
Solskjaer came in, established a set system (4-3-3) and unsurprisingly the performances immediately improved. Prior to the famous PSG match, United’s NPxG went from 24.31 (1.43/GM) to 21.83 (1.82/GM). Their expected goals against dropped from 1.43 to 1.08. That’s a genuine improvement, but it’s really not that big. Their form was indicative of a very hot run of finishing — they scored 25 non-penalty goals during that stretch, along with four penalties (more than they had been given all season under Mourinho). The penalties heavily factored in to their rise from 1.41 xPTS/gm to 1.98.
As everyone knew, that run was unsustainable, and eventually United came crashing back to earth. Sort of. Even after the PSG match United were still better than they had been in the first half of the season under Mourinho. When you look at the numbers from the entire season under Solskjaer there is still improvement, which is expected from installing a steady system and letting the players play.
Of course the season ended terribly, and perception is everything. If we took all the results Solskjaer accumulated last year and just redistributed the order in which they came, would people feel differently about him? Maybe. But would he have gotten the job then? That’s also a good question.
So what did United do? They essentially stripped their team down for parts last summer. They let Herrera walk and sold/loaned off Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sánchez. While that might have been the right decision for each of those individual cases, they didn’t replace any of them. That left the squad bare bones thin, and completely inexperienced.
Naturally, with an inexperienced side, they would be inconsistent, and performances should have dropped off.
Funny how that works.
According to xPTS their performances have improved since last year.
United are 10 points behind their xPTS for three reasons. Poor finishing, the very average form of David de Gea, and set pieces.
Set pieces have been an issue on both sides of the ball. United get a lot of them and never score from them, and on the other side they concede a ton of goals from them. According to whoscored, they’ve conceded 10 goals on set pieces, plus a penalty, plus an own goal which was scored on a set piece. That’s 12 of the 29 goals United have conceded. To make matters worse, this wasn’t a problem at the beginning of the season — this is a recent problem that doesn’t seem to be going away.
This is 100 percent a coaching issue. Solskjaer is probably not in charge of coaching set pieces himself, but he’s the head honcho and this ultimately falls on his head.
Sure, Mauricio Pochettino could walk in with a new backroom staff and someone there could fix the defensive issues on set pieces, which could be worth 5-6 points down the stretch. However, that involves learning new patterns and could take time. By the same token, Solskjaer could just hire a new coach to work on set pieces, although even I’ll admit that he does not have nearly enough established clout to start blaming this on assistant coaches.
You can argue that given this squad Solskjaer should be doing better than he is (as XPTS says), but how much better could he possibly be doing?
Marcus Rashford is already having the best year of his career. Anthony Martial is on pace to do the same. Eighteen year-old Mason Greenwood has 9 goals in all competitions, an astonishing 0.61 goals per 90. Daniel James got off to such a hot start and made himself so indispensable with his defending that he’s now run down and exhausted. Brandon Williams came out of nowhere to become the first choice left-back. Fred has gone from £52 million flop to being a great but unspectacular midfielder. 365 days ago Scott McTominay was being sent back to the U23s. Now he’s one of the most important players in the first team, not because there’s no one else, but on merit.
There’s even been improvement in Andreas Pereira. Since the loss to Bournemouth, when Pereira has started in the number 10 role (not as a central midfielder) his underlying creative numbers have gone up.
The numbers are still terrible — because Andreas Pereira is still garbage — but it’s improvement.
Is there really someone out there that can improve these players more than they’re already improving?
It turns out that flawed teams are exactly that. We’ve already seen this happen across the Premier League this season. In November, Tottenham were 14th in the table, three spots lower than xPTS had them.
They fired Pochettino and brought in Mourinho. They immediately won four of five, getting that nice new manager bump. Since then, they’ve only won two of their last seven. Their xPTS/gm rose from 1.27 under Pochettino to 1.59 so far under Mourinho. An improvement, but not a big one.
Turns out it’s not the manager who can prevent Harry Kane’s diminishing effect, the aging of their defense, lack of midfielders, and lack of creativity.
Arsenal featured the same problem. When Unai Emery was sacked, Arsenal were eighth in the table, but xPTS had them 13th. They were actually overachieving.
They eventually dropped to 12th when Mikel Arteta came in. Since then, their scintillating form of...one win, four draws, and one loss has seen them rise all the way to 10th! Their xPTS/gm has gone from 1.23 under Emery to 1.34 under Arteta.
Their defense still features Mustafi and David Luiz. Their attack remains imbalanced. Flawed squads remain flawed.
A lot of times, the manager isn’t the problem. We’ve seen that twice this year. When Southampton lost 9-0 to Leicester it looked like that was the end of Ralph Hasenhuttl. The Saints were 17th in the table and had just been humiliated.
Not surprisingly, an analytics based team like Southampton saw that based on xPTS, the Saints should have been much higher in the table. Coming into that weekend xPTS had Southampton seventh. One bad loss didn’t change the whole season. They decided that Hasenhuttl wasn’t the problem and if they just showed some faith, they’d be rewarded.
Had the season started from 0 after that 9-0 loss, here’s what the table would look like.
The other notably flawed team is none other than Manchester United. Coming off a loss to Newcastle, United headed into the October international break in 12th. With Liverpool on the horizon, the calls for Solskjaer’s head were never louder (until now).
xPTS though had United sitting in third. Their performances were fine, they were just getting unlucky. Stay the course and things would right themselves.
Fifth in the league, which is basically exactly where they should be. More often than not teams tend to play to their numbers and flawed teams tend to be flawed teams.
A few weeks ago I wrote a midseason assessment that said if everything stayed the same as it did in the first half United’s results would improve and they’d likely finish in the top four.
That ain’t gonna happen. Paul Pogba, Scott McTominay, and Marcus Rashford have all since gone down with injuries and United have nobody to replace them. They won’t be able to overcome that. Games like the Burnley match are going to happen again.
That’s not Solskjaer’s fault. That’s the board’s fault for not having provided backups in those crucial positions.
Mauricio Pochettino can walk through that door, but unfortunately he doesn’t have the power to magically heal Rashford, Pogba, and McTominay. He’d still have to work with this same barebones squad Solskjaer has. A squad that is now predictably exhausted from the festive period the same way that all small clubs end up exhausted after the festive period.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may not be proving that he’s the long term answer, but he’s proven enough to show that this mess is hardly his fault.
But go ahead Ed Woodward, let Solskjaer be your scapegoat. Make a change because that’s what the fans are demanding and things have never been worse at the club. You’ll get a nice reaction from a good chunk of the fan base and it’ll seem like things are on the up.
But make no mistake, you’d ultimately just be rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Whether or not Ole is the right guy long term, if he’s shown the door now and Woodward isn’t directly behind him, we’ll be having this same conversation in 18 months.