Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s dwindling authority at Manchester United has suffered another severe blow with a deflated dressing room losing faith in the manager’s ability to take the club forward.
Solskjaer remains well liked on a personal level by the players and there is none of the toxicity that marked the end of Jose Mourinho’s reign as United manager, nor is he an unpopular figure among the squad like Louis van Gaal.
But a calamitous past week, during which time United conceded 11 goals in three games and were humiliated 5-0 by great rivals Liverpool, has only deepened the feeling in the dressing room that Solskjaer has outstayed his welcome and that change is necessary if the club is serious about challenging for the biggest trophies.
Solskjaer’s tactical acumen, selections, reluctance to make big decisions and indulgence of underperforming players and star names have all been called into question by players as United’s season unravels.
It is understood that Eric Bailly openly challenged Solskjaer in the aftermath of the wretched 4-2 defeat at Leicester when he reputedly asked the manager “why he picked a centre-half who was not fit”. Bailly was overlooked for Harry Maguire, who started despite having only had one training session on the grass after three weeks out with a calf injury and his patent lack of fitness showed during an error strewn display. Maguire kept his place against Atalanta and Liverpool, despite similarly poor showings.
Bailly was one of several players to question some of Solskjaer’s decisions during a frank exchange of views before the Atalanta game last Wednesday. One senior player is understood to have asked why Donny van de Beek, who has made just four league starts in his 14 months at Old Trafford, has been routinely passed over. Others have questioned why Jesse Lingard has been frozen out and why others, such as Nemanja Matic, have been used so sparingly when the form of so many regulars has been so poor, with concerns raised about the tendency to keep repeating the same mistakes and the “favouritism” shown to some.
Several sources have pointed out that, in addition to the lack of cohesion defensively, there is a glaring disconnect between the team’s glittering array of attacking players best reflected in their work out of possession. “You won’t find one player who doesn’t like Ole on a personal level, he’s a nice guy, but we’re at a stage where players have lost trust in his tactics and lost trust in his selections,” one source said.
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Cristiano Ronaldo has been left alarmed by United’s dramatic slump in form and the lack of understanding with Mason Greenwood has not gone unnoticed by team-mates. Greenwood has been one of United’s better performers this season but Ronaldo has struggled to strike up a rapport with the 20-year-old on the pitch and has been exasperated at times by some of the striker’s decision-making. Ronaldo seemed to hint at tensions with some of the club’s younger players during an interview with Canadian streaming service DAZN before the Liverpool game.
“I don’t mean only in football, this new generation since probably 1995 they are thinking different, the life, the football, the struggles, this has to come from inside of you," Ronaldo said."You have to accept some times that you don’t agree with. I remember in our generation, 1985, it was more difficult to play in the first team. I remember how tough it was to play for Manchester United and even in the national team but if you see around the world now things are coming a little bit easier and they don’t appreciate the lot. This is my point of view.”
Solskjaer is thought to have responded to some of the questions thrown down by players by urging them to trust him. He reiterated those calls in the dressing room in the wake of the Liverpool debacle by telling them to “fight” their way back from the brink.
Yet the feeling in the dressing room was that Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp had exposed Solskjaer’s limitations and poor in-game management as United were taken apart by the Merseyside club. There was, for example, said to be disbelief among some of the squad that United started with the same team against Liverpool that had been cut open defensively by Atalanta only four days earlier.
One senior figure at Old Trafford admitted on Monday that United had been “let off lightly” by Liverpool, who were already leading 5-0 by the time Paul Pogba was sent off on the hour mark for a studs-up lunge at Naby Keita only 15 minutes after coming on that encapsulated the team’s indiscipline.
The shambolic performance raised the most pressing questions yet about Solskjaer’s tactical acumen and the quality of coaching United’s players are getting. Yet it was suggested going into the game that United’s coaching staff were convinced they had devised a plan that would stop Liverpool after working specifically on the shape of the team. What followed was one of the most disheveled, error strewn performances in United’s modern history. The players were given Monday off but Solskjaer spent a few hours at the training ground before going home. The full squad are due back in on Tuesday.
Solskjaer has styled himself more as a general manager and invariably left Kieran McKenna, his young first team coach, to drive training. But there is concern among the players that they need a lot more if United are going to challenge Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City at the top.
Luke Shaw echoed the thoughts of many in the dressing room when he claimed that the Liverpool result had “been coming” and Solskjaer now faces his biggest fight yet to convince his players he is the right man to drag United out of this hole.
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