As he heads back to Goodison Park this weekend under mounting pressure, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has every right to feel slightly uneasy about his position as Manchester United manager.

It was there in April last year that Solskjaer reached what was until recently his lowest point — losing 4-0 to an Everton side significantly inferior to the one he will face at lunchtime on Saturday.

He may also be aware that Goodison was the scene of David Moyes’s last stand as United manager in 2014 when a figure dressed as the Grim Reaper popped up close to the away dugout and proved rather prophetic.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer heads to Goodison Park under mounting pressure as Man United boss

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer heads to Goodison Park under mounting pressure as Man United boss

A 4-0 defeat at Everton in 2019 was a big turning point in the early days of Solskjaer's reign

A 4-0 defeat at Everton in 2019 was a big turning point in the early days of Solskjaer’s reign

‘Everton was the lowest I’ve been,’ admitted Solskjaer in February. ‘We remember that, it was just a capitulation. I knew probably before then, but that was when one or two had their last chance more or less.

‘I can, with hand on heart, say these boys will never give in and never give up like that team did. These are the boys we want to build the next team around.’

A year and a half later, it’s fair to ask just how much progress United have made. Seven of the starting line-up at Goodison that day — David de Gea, Victor Lindelof, Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic, Fred, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial — remain first-team regulars and could play again on Saturday. Last month, Solskjaer hit a new low when United were thrashed 6-1 at home by Tottenham, a capitulation every bit as bad as the Everton debacle. Since then, wins over Newcastle, Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig have contrasted with defeats by Arsenal and Istanbul Basaksehir and a stodgy draw with Chelsea.

A year-and-a-half later, it's fair to ask just how much progress United have made with Solskjaer

A year-and-a-half later, it’s fair to ask just how much progress United have made with Solskjaer

Solskjaer has been left frustrated by inconsistent results that have stunted their progress

Solskjaer has been left frustrated by inconsistent results that have stunted their progress

Former United boss David Moyes' last act in charge was a defeat at Goodison back in 2014 when someone dressed as the Grim Reaper sat just behind the under-pressure manager

Former United boss David Moyes’ last act in charge was a defeat at Goodison back in 2014 when someone dressed as the Grim Reaper sat just behind the under-pressure manager

 

There is no doubt United have moved forward under Solskjaer but you can only take so many steps back before people start to ask serious questions.

As Roy Keane bluntly pointed out, it’s not as though the blips are coming 16 games apart.

It’s the lack of consistency that is killing a United team languishing 15th in the table, having lost three of their opening four Premier League fixtures at Old Trafford.

Against this backdrop and increasing speculation over Solskjaer’s future, the shadow of Mauricio Pochettino looms large — just as Jose Mourinho haunted Louis van Gaal in the final months of his reign at United.

Mauricio Pochettino is waiting in the wings and United have had to deny making an approach

Mauricio Pochettino is waiting in the wings and United have had to deny making an approach

United were forced to deny making an approach for Pochettino for the second time in a month on Thursday and insist Solskjaer retains their full support. ‘A bumpy patch’ was how one insider described it. Even if United wanted change, could they afford at the height of a pandemic to pay off Solskjaer and finance Pochettino’s £12m-a-year salary plus the new signings he would want?

It would appear the Norwegian is safe for now but the magic — the romantic notion of the club legend returning to lead his team out of the wilderness — is wearing thin.

Solskjaer is believed to have become more withdrawn at Carrington, spending more time than usual in the company of coach Kieran McKenna and their team of analysts. His No 2 Mike Phelan is also said to have an air of resignation about him.

Confidence in their methods is starting to ebb among the players, too. One source pointed out on Thursday that footballers have a tendency to turn when a team’s failings are impacting on their own careers and, worryingly, that process seems to have begun.

Confidence in Solskjaer's methods are beginning to ebb among the playing squad too

Confidence in Solskjaer’s methods are beginning to ebb among the playing squad too

Against Arsenal, United stars were aware that Solskjaer was being outmanoeuvred by Arteta

Against Arsenal, United stars were aware that Solskjaer was being outmanoeuvred by Arteta

HOW UNITED CONCEDED ‘COMICAL’ GOAL

Keane accused United players of throwing Mourinho under the bus and the former Old Trafford captain can see the same thing happening again now.

While Solskjaer remains infinitely more popular with the players than his predecessor, he does not have Mourinho’s stellar coaching credentials to inspire confidence that he can solve United’s problems in the long term.

There is uncertainty over formation and tactics that was exposed to a shocking degree in Istanbul on Wednesday night. United’s players all went up for a corner in the 13th minute and left Basak-sehir striker Demba Ba standing all on his own on the halfway line. Schoolboy stuff.

Against Arsenal on Sunday, the United players were aware that Solskjaer was being outmanoeuvred by Mikel Arteta as the Spaniard shouted instructions from the touchline.

There is sympathy for Solskjaer in that he has been let down by the board in getting his targets

There is sympathy for Solskjaer in that he has been let down by the board in getting his targets

Having been hailed as a tactical mastermind for outwitting Leipzig coach Julian Nagelsmann with a midfield diamond and PSG’s Thomas Tuchel with a back three, Solskjaer is being questioned after back-to-back defeats. It’s a harsh reality of football that flexibility is perceived as fallibility when results go against you.

There is sympathy for Solskjaer in many quarters that he has been let down by his employers. He wanted Jadon Sancho but got two teenage right wingers in Facundo Pellistri and Amad Diallo who will not be of benefit to the first-team for some time.

United needed a centre back but couldn’t buy one because there were already six on the books. They did sign Donny van de Beek but so far that only seems to have exacerbated the existing problems in midfield, where Paul Pogba covets the advanced role given to Bruno Fernandes.

The muddled thinking at the top has impacted on the manager but, of course, there have been no complaints from Solskjaer. That is one of the reasons he retains the support of the Old Trafford hierarchy.

United chief Ed Woodward has come under fire for not landing Jadon Sancho, the No 1 target

United chief Ed Woodward has come under fire for not landing Jadon Sancho, the No 1 target

Gary Neville is not alone, however, in wondering if his old team-mate needs to be a little more selfish in his approach to the club and his players.

Solskjaer has been on a sticky wicket before. In December, he was under pressure going into successive games against Tottenham and Manchester City and won them both. The heat was on again the following month before the signing of Fernandes sparked a revival.

There is little doubt United have suffered a hangover from last season and these are early days in the new campaign. They have a game in hand and victory over Everton would change the picture again.

But as he goes back to Goodison, Solskjaer will be well aware that he needs to turn it around sooner rather than later.

Solskjaer has pulled out results when he has needed to before, and will have to do so again

Solskjaer has pulled out results when he has needed to before, and will have to do so again

Solskjaer has been on a sticky wicket before. In December, he was under pressure going into successive games against Tottenham and Manchester City and won them both. The heat was on again the following month before the signing of Fernandes sparked a revival.

There is little doubt United have suffered a hangover from last season and these are still early days in the new campaign. They have a game in hand and victory over Everton would change the picture again.

But as he goes back to Goodison, Solskjaer will be well aware that he needs to turn it around sooner rather than later. 



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