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Saturday, January 29, 2022

Post Alex Ferguson hangover still consumes Manchester United

Durban – That the guillotine hovered over Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s head for precisely 28 days following Manchester United’s humiliating 5-0 home defeat to Liverpool, before his eventual axing last Sunday, is testament to the evident indecisiveness of the club’s hierarchy.

It is this hesitancy and lack of cut throat decision-making, required in elite sport, which has played a significant role in the once dominant club’s gradual decline in the post Sir Alex Ferguson era.

It took United’s owners, the Glazers, board of directors and their henchmen, executive vice chairman Ed Woodward, managing director Richard Arnold and even director of football John Murtough almost a month to sound the Norwegian’s death knell. It is as shocking as their dilly dallying in immediately appointing his interim successor.

Long before Jurgen Klopp’s swaggering Reds stunned Old Trafford into silence with a merciless display of hybrid attacking football that tore United to shreds, the alarm bells had rung for the affable Norwegian legendary striker-turned manager.

That pitiful Sunday, October 24 afternoon horror show against Liverpool was the confirmation that the hero of United’s famed 1999 treble had overstayed his welcome in the Red Devils’ dugout.

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The English Football League Cup third round exit courtesy of a 1-0 defeat to West Ham, followed by another 1-0 home reversal, this time to Aston Villa, should have sprung United’s top brass into action, simply because a squad brimming with that sort of talent had no business suffering setbacks in those clashes.

Solskjaer’s temporary reprieve would come in the form of a dramatic last-gasp, come-from-behind 2-1 home win over Villarreal in the Uefa Champions League. That temporarily restored the feel-good factor at Old Trafford given the heroic manner of its deliverance by Alex Telles and Cristiano Ronaldo.

However, the Villarreal heroics had only served to paper over worryingly yawning cracks as a 1-1 home draw against Everton would first depict before a trip to the English East Midlands would once more reveal the screaming cracks.

On that Saturday afternoon Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City turned their King Power Stadium into a slaughterhouse, dispatching four goals past David De Gea while United had Kasper Schmeichel pick the ball out of his net only twice.

That was the moment United’s chain of command should have acted decisively and arrested the slide by sending Ole packing, but their lack of ruthlessness saw them persevere and keep what can only be described as blind faith in the 48-year-old manager.

Barring a classy 3-0 trouncing of a troubled Tottenham Hotspur in North London, the performances and results in the weeks following that mauling by Rodgers’ Foxes did nothing to inspire hope of a change in fortunes.

When most expected Solskjaer to vacate the managerial role in the aftermath of the 2-0 home defeat to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in the Manchester Derby, he somehow held on but it was becoming clear as daylight that he would not see out the month.

His day of reckoning came last Saturday when United could barely put up a fight in a 4-1 reversal against an inspired Watford at Vicarage Road. Claudio Ranieri’s Hornets’ venomous sting proved too strong for the Red Devils to bear.

If uncertainty had previously clouded the collective thinking of United’s bigwigs then the outcome of the trip to Hertfordshire was enough to clear any lingering doubts about the need for a change in the managerial hot seat.

Now that the Norwegian “kindergarten teacher” is gone, United’s focus should turn to appointing a manager who will get them playing the type of football that their collection of stars should be producing week in week out. Without fail.

Enterprising, edge-on-your-seat football should never be too much for Manchester United’s legion of fans to ask, because this is something steeped in the history and traditions of the 143-year-old club.

United fans have been yearning for the gung-ho football of the Ferguson era that saw them dominate teams at Old Trafford, but also left them confident ahead of trips to places like Anfield, Etihad Stadium and Stamford Bridge not to mention the away grounds of clubs of a lesser stature.

With the megastars that Solskjaer has left for whoever his immediate interim successor will be, the newcomer’s only job is to take this group to the next level, albeit that not being a simple task.

This is one task which the Norwegian’s managerial limitations just did not allow to see out his project as he would have so desperately wished, namely with the annexing of much sought silverware.

The club may be insistent that whoever comes in now will be a temporary appointment until the culmination of the season, but the reality is that results will determine whether the new man stays until season’s end or even beyond that.

If the new boss comes in and performs wonders similar to those of Thomas Tuchel when he replaced Frank Lampard at Chelsea in the middle of last season, leading them to Champions League glory and the FA Cup Final, then United will have to give them the full-time job. United’s no- show at Vicarage laid bare the inadequacies of the Red Devils when faced with handling buoyant Watford. The Hornets sat two places above the relegation zone, but they bullied the Red Devils throughout a horrid 90 minutes for the visitors.

One glance at Klopp’s Liverpool, Guardiola’s City or Tuchel’s Chelsea and you can easily tell that they are clear on what they need to do under any situation on the field of play.

This trio of title chasers are well drilled outfits with a clear style of play set on exerting dominance on their opponents, be it at home or away. It will take high level coaching and intense demands on the Red Devils squad if they are to scale those heights.

That is the level Man United should be operating at if they are to compete domestically and in Europe once more.

Coaching luminaries such as Zinedine Zidane, Erik ten Hag, Mauricio Pochettino have been seen as frontrunners for the permanent job, with the German Ralf Rangnick seen as the perfect interim boss before one of the aforementioned three is handed the reins permanently ahead of the 2022/2023 campaign.

World Cup-winning Frenchman and former Red Devils centreback Laurent Blanc, and former United legends Mark Hughes and Steve Bruce have also been linked to the interim job.

No matter who comes in to steady the ship, United’s decision-makers need to make sure that it is somebody who will shake up that dressing room and breathe some life into it if a campaign that looks to be on the rocks is to be salvaged.

Some may argue that big names like Louis van Gaal and his successor Jose Mourinho did not particularly work for United, but the likes of David Moyes and to some extent Solskjaer have also not quite been able to shake off the post Fergie hangover that still consumes Old Trafford.

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