Explained: Can the possible Solskjaer to Zidane switch save Manchester United?

A managerial change looks imminent, but why have United fallen off their perch so rapidly despite being one of the richest clubs in the world?

Boos rang out at the away end at Vicarage Road, as Manchester United’s dismal performance continued, a 4-1 thrashing to promoted side Watford being the latest. This was United’s fifth defeat in seven league games, which made their manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s position untenable.

A managerial change looks imminent, but why have United fallen off their perch so rapidly despite being one of the richest clubs in the world?

What next for Solskjaer?

Ever since his appointment as the manager in December 2018, first as a caretaker followed by a full-time role, the club has backed the Norwegian to the hilt. Things became toxic during Jose Mourinho’s last days at the club, so much so that Paul Pogba had reacted to his sacking with a cryptic tweet.

Solskjaer being a club legend, carried a positive vibe. He reset the team culture. Despite his questionable managerial pedigree – a Cardiff City discard – he improved the situation at United, on and off the pitch, because he knew the club inside out. For the first time since Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, the club secured back-to-back top four finishes in the Premier League under Solskjaer. This season, after an exciting summer transfer window that saw the acquisitions of Jadon Sancho, Raphael Varane and Cristiano Ronaldo, it felt like United would be title contenders. Things have unravelled spectacularly, putting Solskjaer on the brink. There’s no coming back from here.

The United board called an emergency meeting on Saturday evening to discuss the managerial situation and according to a Guardian report, the decision to sack Solskjaer has been agreed upon.

Who could replace Solskjaer?

United actually wasted two international breaks, when they had enough time to usher in a managerial change. Then again, options for the club at the moment are limited. Antonio Conte, a Premier League winner, was a free agent until he was roped in by Tottenham Hotspur. But according to reports, United never wanted the Italian, whose style is similar to Mourinho’s. Also, Conte rocks the boat. Leicester City manager Brendan Rodgers, along with Paris Saint-Germain’s Mauricio Pochettino, is said to be the club’s top two preferred candidates, but both are occupied at the moment and so is Ajax’s Erik ten Hag. All three conform to the United ethos of playing attacking football and giving youth a chance, but only two days back Rodgers had ruled out the possibility of him leaving Leicester City mid-season and right now, Zinedine Zidane appears to be the only option left.

Will Zidane be a good choice?

Zidane has the experience of managing Real Madrid and winning three consecutive Champions League titles with the club. His experience of working with Ronaldo and Varane might come in handy if he joins United. Downside is that, Zidane doesn’t speak English. He has no experience in English football and at United, not only will he manage the world’s most popular club, he will also be in the toughest league on the planet. Some reports suggest that United owners, the Glazers, want Zidane as Solskjaer’s replacement, but the reality is that for the time being, the club has to make do with an interim appointment, Michael Carrick or Darren Fletcher. United’s next game is a Champions League fixture, against Villarreal on Tuesday.

Has Solskjaer lost the dressing-room?

Jesse Lingard’s Instagram post suggests so. Minutes after Solskjaer’s press conference on Friday, the United academy graduate posted a picture wearing a West Ham United shirt, a club where he resurrected his career under David Moyes during a loan spell last season. Contract negotiations between United and Lingard have collapsed and the playmaker looks set for a Hammers reunion next season on a free transfer.

Time and again Solskjaer has publicly promised game time to Lingard and Donny van de Beek before reneging on his promise. When the latter was eventually brought on in the second-half against Watford, he made an instant impact.

Even after the loss to Watford, Solskjaer insisted that he had the support of his players. “Of course at the moment it’s a difficult time for us. I can trust every single one out there to give their all. The staff are fantastic, but the results are difficult. I believe we can turn this around,” he said, looking downbeat and seemingly resigned to his fate.

How bad is the situation at United?

David de Gea’s post-match comment after the Watford humiliation summed up United’s situation at the moment. “Embarrassing first half; we could have conceded four goals in 45 minutes. It was hard to watch the team playing today – it was nightmare after nightmare. It’s not acceptable,” the Spaniard told BBC Sport.

Does the blame lie solely with Solskjaer?

As the fans were booing Solskjaer at Vicarage Road, Bruno Fernandes got involved into an argument with the away support, pointing towards himself and his teammates and suggesting that as players, they deserved the boos.

To start with, United’s captain Harry Maguire, a £80m signing from Leicester, has proved to be a massive letdown, in terms of his performance on the pitch as also in providing leadership. Little wonder then that his cupping the ears celebration after he scored for England against Albenia didn’t go down well with United’s iconic former captain Roy Keane, who lambasted Maguire.

Except De Gea, no player has put in a consistent performance this term. The team has looked under-coached, with Solskjaer’s coaching staff, including Carrick, learning on the job. Varane’s injury has made things worse.

What about the club hierarchy?

This will be Woodward’s fourth managerial casualty after he became the de facto head of the club following David Gill’s retirement in 2013. A former investment banker, the outgoing executive vice-chairman has shown his naivety on football matters despite backing the managers with sufficient funds, including close to £400m for Solskjaer. The club never had a structure in place and belatedly they appointed a director of football and a technical director after losing ground to rival clubs like Manchester City and Liverpool. United are now playing a serious catch-up. Their rot goes far deeper than Solskjaer, from overpaid and the underperforming players to the Glazers’s ownership that has reportedly drained £1 billion from the club.

Has Ronaldo’s signing augured well?

The 36-year-old forward already has guaranteed goals, but looking back, Solskjaer would rue his signing. Ronaldo’s arrival has robbed the team of its high-press, leading to a tactical conundrum. A substandard midfield got even more exposed, with the defence collapsing as a trickle-down effect. Solskjaer tried to address this by switching to a 3-5-2 formation, but it cancelled out Sancho, a £73m summer buy. Ronaldo’s signing drastically increased shirt sales at the expense of steel in the midfield, which Declan Rice’s arrival could have provided.

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Can United save their season?

With 17 points from 12 matches, they are already out of the title race. But a top four finish is still achievable, depending on the quality of the next managerial appointment. In the Champions League, United are effectively one win away from qualifying for the round of 16, but the new manager will have to hit the ground running.

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