There’s something horrific, that speaks to a deep-rooted human fear, about going round and round in circles: dangerous inmates, chained to one-another, shuffling silently around a dusty prison yard; the tinny music and ghastly expressions of a merry-go-round; the frantic soul trapped in a maze; Manchester United trying to arrest the rot that has set in since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson.
United have become the Phil Connors of football, with each season as crisis-ridden as the last, a torturous, tedious Groundhog Day of records falling like dominoes, hand-wringing in the boardroom, promises of summer war-chests and wretched football.
The latest such record fell at St James’ Park. This was not the first time Manchester United have been humiliated by Newcastle United but it was the first time they have lost to a Steve Bruce team, at the twenty-third time of asking, against a Newcastle team fresh off the back of a 5-0 mauling the week before, who made their illustrious opponents look right at home in an early season flirtation with the relegation zone.
“I don’t know what is happening,” said a shell-shocked David De Gea.
He’s not the only one. United fans, as the clock wound down, continued to watch mainly out of a sense of morbid curiosity, much as one might slow down to survey the scene of car crash. By then, every one of them was as certain as they’d ever been about anything that their team wouldn’t score, even if the referee allowed them to play until the end of time.
Time is something Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may not get much more of at the club he played for so heroically all those years ago. The Norwegian is ageing before our eyes, as his three predecessors did and, with vultures circling overhead, scavengers prowling in the shadows and the “Told you so’s” of all those who warned against his permanent appointment ringing in his ears, it looks increasingly likely he will go the same way as them.
Rumours of his demise emerged like water dripping from a leaking pipe in the days after this defeat, with pressure from ‘external forces’ cited as a potentially deciding factor should United lose heavily to Liverpool at Old Trafford in their next game.
Then, just days later, we were hearing that Solskjaer is safe whatever the result against their arch rivals and that the club was planning diligently for a future that includes him, with transfer targets identified and a director of football – or two! – in the offing.
It’s all rather muddled, all rather unbecoming, all rather modern-day Manchester United. Fans have become wearily accustomed to the club flying by the seat of its pants, reacting to events as they unfold and telling everyone whatever they think it is everyone wants to hear.
The mood amongst fans at Old Trafford has, overall, been one of patient understanding, while United’s away following are famously vociferous whatever is going on on the pitch. However, while they long for Solskjaer to make a success of things, the niggling worry he’s hopelessly out of his depth – with his abysmal stint at Cardiff City all we really have to go on in terms of track record – is inescapable.
He was meant to have put the fun back into football and restored belief but, with little sign of tactical prowess or enlightened coaching methods, many are starting to question how far talking about past glories and being on first name terms with the canteen staff can get you in one of football’s greatest pressure-cookers.
His players no longer have the spring in their step seen during that brief honeymoon period back in early 2019. Marcus Rashford, in particular, looks like he’s trying to run through quicksand, all the youthful exuberance that made him so exciting being crushed by the weight of expectations far too great to be heaped on one so young. He could probably do with some time on the sidelines but, having gone into the season with only Anthony Martial – injured – and an even younger Mason Greenwood, opportunities for time out of the spotlight are thin on the ground.
In Solskjaer’s defence, he inherited a terrible squad, pieced together by four different managers with different philosophies. United’s executive vice chairman, the smug ex-banker, Ed Woodward, is clueless about footballing matters and has overseen a period of wild spending akin to a child being let loose in a sweet shop, inevitably going overboard and vomiting all over the floor. A squad that should be bristling with talent, given the financial outlay over the last six years, but that is, in reality, an unbalanced, unworkable mess.
Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez were tragically bad for United, wanted to leave and weren’t shown the door until it was too late to replace them – funny, that – so anybody accusing Solskjaer of negligence in letting them leave should direct their ire at Woodward and his team of chancers for, at best poor planning, at worst sheer incompetence.
Nemanja Matic lost his legs years ago, Juan Mata, while a lovely chap, has done nothing of any note on the pitch for years and Fred’s £52m transfer fee has become one of life’s great mysteries – if there ever was a player in there, he’s long gone, the ball bouncing off various parts of his body as he scurries about the pitch to little avail. Andreas Perreira is not much better and, with the likes of Rashford and Jesse Lingard out of form and an injury list that would challenge even the most experienced of managers, it’s a bleak situation.
Solskjaer’s three summer signings, Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James, have all settled in relatively well. The fear is that they, like most signings in recent years, will be infected with the Manchester United malaise, rather than injecting new life into this ailing squad.
Sacking Solskjaer only eight games into the new Premier League season or, put another way, eleven games (including cup competitions) into what was said to be a two to three year rebuild, would seem brutally harsh and, whoever was brought in to replace him would be walking into the same circus, with all the same issues, the same people above them pulling the strings, and no guarantee he’d fare any better than the man they were replacing, or the three men before him.
And the fans would find themselves going round and round in circles once again.