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So, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer limps on at Manchester United, seemingly now operating on a game-by-game basis while the club’s hierarchy weighs up whether he is still the right manager for England’s biggest team.
Could a loss to Tottenham in the Premier League on Saturday be the decisive blow? Does a hectic schedule of three games in a week — United plays Atalanta in the Champions League on Tuesday and Manchester City in the league four days later — mean he’ll survive at least until the international break that follows?
No one can be certain. One thing is for sure, though: Solskjaer is fighting to keep his job heading to Tottenham Hotspur Stadium this weekend and something needs to drastically change if he is to engineer another turnaround in his turbulent three years at United.
Nostalgia has been one of the characteristics of his time as United manager — it's understandable, given he was a key part of that trophy-laden era under Alex Ferguson as a player. And the sight of the 79-year-old Scot at the club’s training complex this week seemed fitting amid uncertainty about Solskjaer’s position following the crushing 5-0 loss to Liverpool last weekend.
However, it is with a nod to his most recent past at United that Solskjaer might yet get through this crisis.
Much of the analysis surrounding United’s pitiful display against Liverpool focused on the team’s inability to press effectively as a team high up the field. With no unity or cohesion in United’s pressing game, Liverpool, as other opponents have demonstrated this season, had an easy time breaking through the midfield and unpicking a defense that was woefully unprotected.
“I was embarrassed. I am embarrassed,” United forward Marcus Rashford wrote on Twitter late Wednesday, breaking his silence on social media since the Liverpool game. “Our fans are everything and you didn’t deserve that. We’re working hard to try and fix this. We have to redeem ourselves.”
To do that, to essentially save his job, maybe Solskjaer has to go back to what has served him well for a large part of his tenure and revert to setting up his team to sit deeper and play on the counterattack. After all, adopting that approach is how United has managed to stay undefeated against City in the league in their last four meetings, winning three of them, and how United kept five clean sheets in six games combined against City, Chelsea and Liverpool last season.
It might appear to be a step back for Solskjaer, an acceptance that he hasn’t advanced United’s play despite some major attacking additions to the squad in the last two years in the form of Bruno Fernandes and more recently Cristiano Ronaldo and Jadon Sancho.
But the current situation might demand it, especially over the next week with Tottenham so effective on the break through Son Heung-min and Harry Kane, Atalanta prone to going all out in attack and leaving gaps in its defense, and City having had problems dealing with United’s counterattacks.
“Of course we have the tactics and how the manager wants us to play, but I think at times we’re way too easy to play against,” United defender Luke Shaw said in a candid assessment.
“I think, for example, you look at the first goal,” he added, referring to the Liverpool game, “it can’t be possible that they can have three running through in the first five minutes. We need to be more compact."
Personnel might have to change, too, which puts the spotlight on whether Rashford and Mason Greenwood do enough defensive work to keep their place on the wings and whether Fred and Scott McTominay can be trusted as the defensive anchormen.
And then there’s Ronaldo, who continues to score goals at a relentless rate but who — at 36 — does little else. As the lone striker, he doesn’t have the work rate to defend from the front like Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino or Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus or Phil Foden.
Ronaldo might still be mobile enough, however, to lead United’s counterattacks if the team breaks from deep.
The Portugal forward is the major difference from the United teams from the last two seasons, along with the emergence of Greenwood as a permanent starter on the right wing. They might have become issues when it comes to the structure of the team, though, even if they are United’s top two scorers.
It makes Solskjaer's team selection against Tottenham fascinating, arguably his most important as United manager. Get it wrong and it could spell the end for the club great who is running out of time.
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Steve Douglas, The Associated Press