After Manchester United lost 6-1 at home to neighboring City at Old Trafford 10 years ago, defender Patrice Evra was stopped on his way home by a fan while filling his car with gasoline.
“Don’t worry,” they told Evra. “We are still the best team.”
Subsequently, United won their next five games without conceding a goal and did not lose again in the Premier League until New Year’s Eve. In the end, City snatched the title from their rivals only on goal difference.
A decade later, United are once again a club awash in introspection. Once again, the margin at Old Trafford was five goals.
Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer described last Sunday’s 5-0 home loss to Liverpool as his darkest moment of the game. This time, the chances of immediate recovery seem remote. That city defeat felt strange. The Liverpool result did not.
The capitulation at home to Liverpool looked like it had been coming for weeks for Manchester United
Solskjaer’s team looks like a poor one that is getting worse. Saturday night they’re at the Spurs. Next Saturday is City, the champion, at home.
It feels sinister and in the club there have been discussions among the board members about what to do next. There is no desire to fire Solskjaer.
“ It is still an absolute last resort, there is no alternative option, ” said a source. Sportsmail this week. However, United are seventh in the table and heading south. As such, there has been talk of possible replacements.
Antonio Conte is not a particularly favored option. The former Chelsea manager has a reputation for being volatile and expensive.
United remain reluctant to fire Solskjaer and will only do so in the event of a last resort.
A well-placed source explained that United have burned their experience with Solskjaer’s predecessor José Mourinho and do not want to go back to those days of festering intoxication.
Sir Alex Ferguson, the last man to bring United a title in 2013, supports Solskjaer but still yearns for former Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino and ideally United would like a British manager or at least one with experience in the field. Premier League.
Someone, for example, like Brendan Rodgers from Leicester. But the Northern Irishman has already rejected Tottenham and Newcastle. To no avail, Rodgers would like the City job when Pep Guardiola moves out.
So United do not see an easy way out of their current solution. Conte has not been ruled out.
The Italian is available and interested and if things continue to slide under Solskjaer, he can still get the call. But for the moment, and if not necessarily for the right reasons, Solskjaer is still limping.
Brendan Rodgers would be a candidate but has his eyes on City’s position after Pep Guardiola
At 1pm on Friday, Solskjaer looked into a Zoom camera for his pre-game press conference on Saturday. “I’m fine,” he said. ‘Why shouldn’t it be?’
After that came 15 minutes of typical Solskjaer rhetoric. The mood in training had been good, he said. Players must show character and courage.
Unfortunately, it is a grinding routine. Within his team, Solskjaer has the will to succeed. His players like it. Likewise, there is no longer the belief that it can get them where they need to go.
Cristiano Ronaldo, United’s stellar summer signing, is understood to be embarrassed by the team’s recent efforts.
Paul Pogba has already decided that he does not want to stay beyond the duration of a contract that expires next summer.
Among United’s support, meanwhile, there has been an unmistakable move away from backing Solskjaer.
This week, United was able to send two players on a school visit for the first time since restrictions around the Covid-19 pandemic were relaxed. It was a historic moment for a club that values the work of its foundation.
Paul Pogba has decided that he does not wish to stay beyond his current contract, which ends in 2022
Captain Harry Maguire and goalkeeper Tom Heaton went to a school specializing in teaching children with learning disabilities, but United’s official social media accounts posted the visit only to find followers posting abusive comments towards Maguire in particular. Soon enough, the club deactivated the comment section.
Meanwhile, a club Twitter post commemorating the birthday of Munich’s hero, the late Harry Gregg, drew reactions like #OleOut and #HireConte. Internet content should never be taken as an exact representative of a fan base.
However, there is a growing sense of dismay and resentment among United fans now that has probably not been seen since Ferguson’s early days in the late 1980s.
A new generation of supporters weaned on a diet of trophies and glory has simply not been here before. The old guard, meanwhile, sees a team within a million miles of the standards expected over the years. Last Sunday, hundreds left their seats with more than a third of the game remaining.
As editor of the Red news fanzine, Barney Chilton said Sportsmail: ‘We were embarrassed against Liverpool and it’s not unique. This is endemic now.
You can’t take that and accept it. You must have standards. I dislike United and it has been so long since I disliked a United team. I’ve never seen so many people leave. I never left that early. I didn’t want to do it, but it’s not going to get better. ”
United fans are increasingly disillusioned and left early in their hundreds against Liverpool
On Friday Solskjaer referred to the ‘two or three crises’ he has survived during this time as a manager. One in particular is relevant.
In December 2019, after a 2-2 draw at home with Aston Villa, United were ninth in the Premier League and 22 points behind leaders Liverpool. Coincidentally, his next two games were against Tottenham and City. Solskjaer’s team won both and finally finished third.
That day it was a different United against Villa. He had Juan Mata, Anthony Martial, Dan James and Andreas Pereira.
In other words, Solskjaer had excuses back then. It has not done so now. What bothers so many United fans is that, for the first time in a long time, their club has a team that should be good enough to fight for a league title.
Not everything is perfect. An influential United figure this week doubted the wisdom of spending £ 80 million on Jadon Sancho and, at the same time, described Donny van de Beek as “one of the worst United signings in history”.
However, this is a United squad that is generally fit for purpose. However, the depressing trajectory of one step forward, two steps back, lived under coaches like Mourinho and, before him, Louis van Gaal, remains.
United shelling out £ 80 million on Jadon Sancho (left) in the summer, but he has yet to settle in with the team.
United’s decline began the moment Ferguson retired in May 2013, of course, and the comparisons to the David Moyes experiment that followed hold true now.
Back then, Moyes was struggling to motivate a group of aging players like Evra, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, and Robin van Persie. Somehow, that group had the look of someone who almost expected Moyes to fail.
This time it is different. Solskjaer presides over a team of players in their prime or approaching it. They are desperate for him to succeed, but increasingly they don’t see a way out of the darkness.
And in the meantime, in the background, there’s Ferguson and you wonder how much that really helps. Solskjaer still calls him “boss” and was cautious for a time about parking in his old space in Carrington.
He admitted on Friday that the two had spoken at training camp this week. It was a chance encounter but it serves to continue the false narrative that nothing is moving at United without Ferguson knowing.
The Scotsman, for example, does not participate in United transfers. Ferguson, visibly appalled by United’s performance while in the directors box last Sunday, once said of Liverpool: “Out of adversity, really illustrious clubs always return to their winning cycle.”
Sir Alex Ferguson still ranks high at United and Solskjaer still knows him as ‘boss’
Liverpool agreed with him. They finally swam back to the surface. So now they can privately mock United’s £ 50 million outlay on a Brazilian midfielder like Fred, just as Ferguson once mocked the purchase of another, Lucas Leiva.
“They offered it to us,” Ferguson once said. ‘Is not sufficient.’
But now it’s his club caught in the reeds, gasping for air.
United finished second last season but anyone could see that they were not representative. Solskjaer’s team suffered practically no injuries as teams like Liverpool and Chelsea struggled.
United’s response to all of that was to give their coach a new contract. It works until mid-2024.