Thomas Tuchel might even have started to think about his handshake with Jose Mourinho. Paired against Manchester United in the last 16 of the Champions League back in December, the Paris Saint-German manager may have pondered what pressing palms with the Portuguese would reveal about his under-fire, under-pressure opponent. Would his hand be sweaty? Trembly? Or steady despite all that Mourinho was facing at the time?
Of course, within a day of the Champions League last 16 draw being made, he was out at Old Trafford, sacked after a dreadful start to the season. In his place Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was installed as caretaker, marking the start of a 11-game unbeaten run which went a long way to correcting the course of United’s campaign. The Norwegian’s handshake on Tuesday night surely exuded, ultimately misplaced, confidence, if that’s at all possible of a handshake.
Indeed, a lot has changed at Old Trafford over the past two months. While Mourinho’s outfit went against the grain of United’s identity as a club, the antithesis of the so-called ‘United Way,’ Solskjaer’s side fulfil that criteria. Or at least they did before Tuesday night, when PSG and Tuchel exposed the Norwegian, underlining how just how far they remain from the top of the European game.
This comes after reports surfaced claiming Man Utd have already made their decision on Solskjaer, with the Norwegian set to be given the job for real at the end of the season. Not so long ago, Mauricio Pochettino was believed to be the preferred option to succeed Mourinho, but recent results have forced board’s hand.
Defeat to PSG raised, for the first time, questions over Solskjaer’s stewardship, although a loss to a team of the French champions’ calibre, especially considering the injuries that hindered United on the night, is nothing to be truly ashamed of. Tuchel’s side could well be frontrunners for this season’s Champions League, certainly on the basis of their display at Old Trafford.
Nonetheless, the result threw into sharp focus the risk that Solskjaer’s permanent hiring would represent. The admirable job the former striker has done as a caretaker would be very different to the one he’d be asked to do as the permanent manager, and United have no way of truly knowing whether he is the right man for the role in the long term.
Caretaker managers by their very nature are reactive. In many cases, and certainly in the case of Solskjaer, their impact comes from the fact that they are not their predecessor. Indeed, there is a feeling that anyone who was not Mourinho would have got a reaction from this group of players at Man Utd. Paul Ince certainly believes that.
The challenge comes when those who make an immediate impact are then asked to impose a philosophy on a team. This is where Roberto di Matteo struggled, sacked just a few months after leading Chelsea to their first ever Champions League title as a caretaker boss. It’s where so many have struggled, from Tim Sherwood at Spurs to Craig Shakespeare at Leicester City.
Other caretakers have been more successful. Gareth Southgate, for instance, was initially a caretaker boss following the firing of Sam Allardyce and he has gone on to completely reshape what is expected of the England team. He might even be the most historically significant England manager since Sir Bobby Robson. Caretakers are generally notorious for outstaying their welcome, though.
Parallels have been drawn between Solskjaer’s early success as Man Utd caretaker manager and the early days of Zinedine Zidane’s time as Real Madrid boss. He too was an appointment designed to get an increasingly exasperated and disenfranchised fanbase back on side. He too was only meant to last until the summer, when a more measured view of the landscape could be taken and a more proven candidate hired.
Within weeks, though, Zidane healed the divisions in the Real Madrid dressing room and got the Spanish giants on a path that led them to the Champions League title that season. There would have been political fallout had Zidane not got the job on a permanent basis. With every win, Man Utd edge themselves closer and closer to this sort of situation. They might already be there.
However, while Zidane undoubtedly enjoyed great success at Real Madrid, overseeing one of the most trophy-laden periods of their entire history as a club, he was a plaster. Now, with Zidane gone, the plaster has been ripped off and the wound exposed. Real Madrid are a club in a bad way and Zidane only helped mask that.
Appointing Solskjaer this summer would do similar, only hiding the fundamental issues and fractures that continue to undermine Manchester United. This is a club with serious problems. An overhaul of the footballing side of the organisation is long overdue, with the infrastructure at Old Trafford inadequate for a club of United’s size in the modern game.
There has been talk of a Director of Football or Technical Director being hired, but recent activity, which has included the extension of Chris Smalling, Anthony Martial and Phil Jones’ contracts, suggests Ed Woodward still believes that he knows best. Even if the hiring of a Director of Football-type figure is still on the to do list, how much control will that person really have if they don’t even get a say in the appointment of the manager? It’s never wise to hire the latter before the former.
The flip side of the argument counters that managers shouldn’t be thrown on the scrapheap so hastily. Solskjaer flopped at Cardiff City and so it was assumed, despite proving his managerial chops back in Norway, that would be his one and only Premier League chance. This is an indictment on how coaches are treated in the modern game.
Some managers are right for certain jobs, certain clubs, and some are wrong for others. In Italy, there is a healthier attitude to failure. It’s almost seen as a rite of passage - look at how Antonio Conte was relegated in his first managerial job at Arezzo before being given another shot at Bari.
A thorough recruitment process can unearth qualities and traits of a manager that had previously gone unnoticed. It may well be the case that Man Utd have conducted a series of interviews with Solskjaer. It’s possible that they have asked the Norwegian to present his long term vision for the club, to give a hint of what comes next.
But given what we know about Woodward and the way he does business, this is probably not the case. More likely, the Man Utd chief, under the microscope after three poor appointments in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson age, sees a popular, and easy, hire. A moment of reckoning will come for the Old Trafford club and many presumed it would come this summer. If Woodward can put that off for a little longer, he will. Solskjaer means one thing to the United fans who sing his name, who have revelled in his presence of late, and something entirely different to the ones who actually make the calls at the club. Beware caretaker managers, even ones as impressive as Solskjaer.