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red alert Why Ole Gunner Solskjaer will never be good enough to win title at United

It’s time Ole was held to account – he is in charge of probably the biggest club in England

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Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Cavani

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Cavani

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Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters

It may be a crude measure but here goes. If Pep Guardiola left Manchester City tomorrow, what would happen? He would be guaranteed a big job somewhere else. If Jurgen Klopp quit Liverpool, or Thomas Tuchel exited Chelsea? The same. These are elite managers, after all.

Now, what if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer departed Manchester United? Where would his next club be? Not even Solskjaer’s biggest supporters would argue that he could expect to be at one of Europe’s top clubs.

Now ask this: if Graham Potter, Dean Smith and Thomas Frank were on the shortlist for a job along with Solskjaer, who would get it? I would argue Solskjaer would be the fourth favourite out of that quartet. And yet he is in charge of probably the biggest club in England.

If that sounds harsh, then it is also the reality of high-level sport. And it is time Solskjaer was held to an account equivalent to his office.

Managers need time – but how much time? United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward declared that “the foundations are in place for long-term success on the pitch” when awarding Solskjaer a new three-year deal in the summer but is there really sufficient evidence to support that? Defeats to Young Boys in the Champions League, West Ham in the Carabao Cup and at home to Aston Villa – all in the space of a fortnight – would suggest not.

Even if results are overlooked for a moment, ask another question: does Solskjaer bring that edge and identity that other top managers bring to their clubs? In fact, does that ruthless streak even exist at United itself as a club?

There is no doubt that – for all his trophy wins – employing Jose Mourinho was a mistake. It was the wrong man at the wrong time. Mourinho is on a downward curve, a decline that then accelerated at Tottenham Hotspur. So choosing Solskjaer to succeed him did make some sense as a short-term fix: it helped rebuild confidence, it gave the impression of a return to core values and he had the endorsement of Alex Ferguson.

But sometimes sacking a manager can be like releasing the pressure on a valve that is about to blow. It is not quite fair to suggest that anyone could have succeeded Mourinho but United certainly had enough talent in their squad to do better once he was gone, no matter who took over.

Turning United into a team greater, or even equivalent to, the sum of their considerable parts on a long-term basis is a far greater challenge.

There is no immediate threat to Solskjaer’s job and no appetite for change within the club’s hierarchy. After all, if they beat Villarreal in the Champions League tomorrow that campaign will be back on track and if results go their way this weekend they could even be top of the Premier League. But does anyone believe it will be sustained? Will United ever be good enough under Solskjaer?

These are questions which do not appear to be being interrogated at the club. United have never maximised their talents under the Norwegian and that is an indictment. Which player has he improved? Where is the innovation? Has he re-deployed anyone in a different role to revitalise their career? It is hard to say yes to any of those questions.

United spent £136m (€159.4m) in the summer on Cristiano Ronaldo, Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho and yet after the Villa loss, the narrative seemed to be that the club needed to sign a reliable central midfielder. There comes a point when it has to stop.

Instead the question has to be asked – what would Guardiola, Klopp or Tuchel do with this United squad? Everyone knows the answer to that. Come to that, what would Antonio Conte – an elite manager who is currently out of work – do with this squad? We know he has long eyed the United job. Maybe the Italian is not the answer either – there would certainly be fears that he would bring a similar kind of high-maintenance disruption to Mourinho – but a club that is confident in what it is doing can manage that.

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At present United are clinging on to hope and jam tomorrow. Hope that the structures they have put in place will eventually succeed and that Solskjaer will grow into the role. But they have already thrown enough money at the problem to be better than they are and so the attention has to turn to management, coaching, tactics and whether they are giving themselves the best possible chance with the best manager they can employ.

If not Solskjaer then who? It is always the question. Conte would be a strong candidate – no doubt – but the fact that there appears no-one else out there at present probably buys the incumbent more time. After all United watched Julian Nagelsmann join Bayern Munich in the summer and we all saw the unedifying scramble that Tottenham were involved in before employing probably their 10th choice in Nuno Espirito Santo.

But Solskjaer needs to face an ultimatum. This has to be the season where United do not just mount a title challenge – a proper, sustained title challenge, not finishing a distant second – but actually win something. And one of those possibilities has already gone with the Carabao Cup.

It is time to be more hard-nosed at United. It is what City, Chelsea and Liverpool expect and they should be no different. Otherwise Solskjaer will never be classed as an elite manager.

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