Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has effectively been given three games to save his job as Manchester United manager.
Although senior sources insist it is not “absolute” that Solskjaer will be replaced if results continue to deteriorate before the next international break, the 48-year-old knows he is under serious threat and more poor results would make the situation untenable.
In fact, United are understood to have already started the search for a new manager should Solskjaer be sacked, and part of the reason for delaying the decision is to give themselves more time.
United face Tottenham Hotspur away on Saturday, then are away to Atalanta in the Champions League next Tuesday before a home game against Manchester City the following Saturday.
However, so precarious is the situation, with the pressure growing, a change may be made before then if there is a repeat this weekend of last Sunday’s 5-0 humiliation against Liverpool. Either way, Solskjaer has been given no guarantees that he will remain in charge beyond the fixture at Tottenham.
Interestingly, though, the mood at the club’s Carrington training ground was turning to one of defiance on Tuesday as the players returned after a day off and there was a sense of wanting to get behind the beleaguered manager.
Solskjaer addressed the squad and went through some of the recent failings in the hope of drawing a line under them and also creating something of a “siege mentality” given the criticism United have faced.
Sir Alex Ferguson and former chief executive Martin Edwards were at the facility but it was for a pre-planned appointment and there were no talks with Solskjaer who arrived early having also been there on Monday when his future was discussed.
Sources insist there was a growing determination to “turn things around so that Ole can remain as our manager” but there have been no assurances following talks with executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward and managing director Richard Arnold, even if they are understood to want to remain supportive.
The fact that the executives, who have also been in consultation with co-chairman Joel Glazer, the head of the American family’s ownership who will make the final decision, want to give Solskjaer more time is clearly because they have supported him from the start and are desperate for him to succeed. Solskjaer has told them he believes he is up to the job.
But it also reflects the need to give themselves a longer period to decide what to do should a change have to be made. Until Sunday, the hierarchy were 100 per cent behind Solskjaer.
United are aware that former Chelsea head coach Antonio Conte wants the job but the club are divided as to whether the Italian is the right manager for them - with his perceived combative style - despite his undoubted coaching achievements.
Contact is yet to be made with Conte and United were left badly scarred by the experience of being managed by Jose Mourinho. Conte would also demand a degree of control that the club may not be willing to give him.
Another potential candidate, the former Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane, has shown no interest in joining the Premier League and is understood to prefer a move back to France to resume his coaching career.
Zidane would be interested in Paris Saint-Germain should Mauricio Pochettino leave and United would be interested in the former Spurs coach. Although rumours persist that Pochettino has not settled at PSG, the club triggered a contract extension in the summer after Spurs tried to take Pochettino back, and they would see it is as point of principle to hold onto him. If he left it would trigger a huge compensation payment, as would a move for Leicester City’s Brendan Rodgers.
The decision to sack Solskjaer is complicated by the fact that United do not believe there is a viable candidate internally to take over as caretaker. None of his assistants, including Michael Carrick or Mike Phelan, appear suitable unless it is a very short-term move before a permanent successor is appointed. The club also does not like the idea of making a change this early in a season and either bringing in a temporary replacement or a manager who may demand wholesale changes to the coaching staff.
However, results may dictate otherwise and United are considering their options ahead of the final international break of the year which allows them 14 days to find a replacement – if needed – before they play again, away to Watford on November 20.
Solskjaer is now fully aware that his job is under threat, despite being given a new three-year contract in the summer and just days after Woodward said he was more convinced than ever that the Norwegian was the right man to deliver success.
However, United have not won a league game since mid-September and are already eight points behind leaders Chelsea with some players, despite the encouraging noises being made on Tuesday, having lost faith in Solskjaer and his inexperienced coaching team.
Given Solskjaer and his coaches have a clear week to prepare for the Spurs game, the club will also monitor closely what is happening on the training ground as they look for a reaction to the Liverpool performance. At the very least, there has to be an improved defensive performance with nine goals conceded in the past two league games.
Indeed, former United captain and club ambassador Bryan Robson said it looked like the players “didn’t care” during the defeat to Liverpool and added of Solskjaer: “Man United, as a club, we always give people a fair chance. Ole has got to turn it around quickly. We can’t have too many more performances like that especially against the biggest opposition in the world for Man United.”