It comes as little surprise to see Ole Gunnar Solskjaer leading the Premier League sack race once again after Manchester United’s dismal exit from the Champions League.
But the Norwegian will merely see it as just another day at the office having been under intense pressure for most of his near two years in charge at Old Trafford.
This is the fourth time Solskjaer and ‘the sack’ have been widely mentioned in the same sentence and, rather like his ‘supersub’ playing days, he seems to prosper in the face of adversity.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer cuts a dejected figure after Manchester United’s Champions League exit
David de Gea (left) and Harry Maguire react during Tuesday night’s 3-2 defeat to RB Leipzig
Just when all hope of him keeping his job at United seems to have drained away, they will embark on a winning run and the picture will completely change.
After Tuesday night’s 3-2 defeat to RB Leipzig, which condemned United to Europa League football after Christmas, Solskjaer desperately needs a response in Saturday’s Manchester derby against City and more broadly over the packed festive schedule.
We’ve been here before, however.
DECEMBER 2019 – Ninth in the Premier League after 2-2 draw with Aston Villa
Rewind almost exactly nine months and the honeymoon period Solskjaer enjoyed when he first took over from Jose Mourinho was but a distant memory.
Things had started so wonderfully when Solskjaer was plucked from his job with Molde and installed as United’s interim boss following the toxic break-up with Mourinho in the wake of a loss at Liverpool.
Solskjaer’s liberated team won 10 of their first 11 matches and he was handed the job on a permanent basis following that miraculous comeback against Paris Saint-Germain.
But everything immediately began to unravel from there, with United winning just two and losing 10 of the 12 games between that night and the end of the season.
Solskjaer consoles Marcus Rashford after the 2-2 draw with Aston Villa in December last year
Pressure was mounting on United with their league record worse off then under Jose Mourinho
United had been completely outplayed by Sheffield United a week earlier but drew 3-3
Man United fixtures
Premier League unless stated
Saturday Manchester City (H)
December 17 Sheffield United (A)
December 20 Leeds United (H)
December 23 Everton (A)
Carabao Cup quarter-final
The 2019-20 season hadn’t started very well either and by the beginning of December, many were questioning whether Solskjaer was actually up to the job.
Following a 2-2 home draw with newly-promoted Aston Villa, United sat ninth in the table with only 18 points from their opening 14 league games.
When Mourinho was sacked a year earlier, United had amassed 26 points from 17 games, so there was a strong case for saying things hadn’t really progressed.
That particular week had been a case in point. United had been blown apart in the first-half of their game at Sheffield United, trailing 2-0 and were so bad Solskjaer admitted he wanted to substitute all 10 outfield players.
United rallied to lead 3-2 but ended up drawing 3-3. A youthful team had them lost 2-1 to Kazakh minnows Astana in the Europa League and the draw with Villa led to some fans at Old Trafford booing the team off.
Ahead of a week that would see United play first Tottenham and then Manchester City, few carried much hope for Solskjaer even if the club’s hierarchy insisted he had their backing.
In his press conference to preview the Spurs game, Solskjaer dismissed the sack rumours as ‘lies’.
And they shocked everybody by beating both Spurs and City 2-1 to give the manager some much-needed breathing space.
If the victory over his predecessor Mourinho wasn’t sweet enough, the win over Pep Guardiola’s City combined superb counter-attacking football with resolute defence, effectively ending their rivals’ title chances.
Solskjaer cheekily gives Mourinho a tap on the head after United’s 2-1 victory over Tottenham
The much-needed win at home to Spurs sparked a much-needed upturn in United’s fortunes
They followed that up with an excellent performance to win the derby with Manchester City 2-1
In the space of a week, the picture had completely changed for under-pressure Solskjaer
JANUARY 2020 – United jeered by their own fans after home loss to Burnley
Those big wins kept the wolves from the door – but not for too long.
By the end of January, following league losses to Watford, Arsenal and Liverpool, plus a home defeat to City in the EFL Cup semi-final, the pressure had mounted once again on Solskjaer.
Doubly so when United were jeered off the field by their own supporters after Burnley claimed their first ever Premier League win at Old Trafford on January 22.
The result left United trailing fourth-placed Chelsea by six points in the race to qualify for the Champions League places.
The lack of quality in United’s squad had been exposed by the fact Solskjaer had turned to 18-year-old Mason Greenwood to cover for the injured Marcus Rashford. The transfer window was still open and United were crying out for reinforcements.
But the problems soon returned for Solskjaer following a difficult run of results over winter
Things reached a low point at the end of January as United were beaten at home by Burnley
Fans voted with their feet by leaving Old Trafford early and those that remained jeered them
‘We hold our hands up, it is not good enough,’ Solskjaer said after the shock defeat.
Doubts were growing again over whether he was able to restore United to trophy-winning strength but the Burnley loss, or more specifically the £47million signing of Bruno Fernandes eight days later, proved a turning point.
From the low of that defeat, United somehow embarked on a 19-match unbeaten run in all competitions with Fernandes having a transformative effect on the team’s performances.
The run, which came either side of the three-month Covid-19 shutdown, included two wins over Manchester City, a league success away at Chelsea and progress in the Europa League.
Ultimately, it helped propel United to a third-place finish and Champions League football, and though they would suffer disappointment in losing FA Cup and Europa League semi-finals, it ensured a satisfactory second season for Solskjaer.
United responded that week by going out and paying £47million to sign Bruno Fernandes
The team duly embarked on an unbeaten run, including a derby win over Man City at home
United won at Leicester to secure a Champions League return on the final day of the season
A thrilled Solskjaer and his coaching staff celebrate after securing their top four finish
NOVEMBER 2020 – Pochettino looms after shambolic loss to Istanbul Basaksehir
Solskjaer may have received a passing grade for last season but the present one soon threw up another host of issues to resolve.
A ridiculously short pre-season turnaround, missed targets in the summer transfer market, a leaky defence, muddled midfield and horrendously inconsistent results to name but a few headaches.
They lost at home to Crystal Palace in the season opener and were then humiliated 6-1 by Mourinho’s Spurs.
A mini-recovery, that included wins over PSG and Leipzig, steadied the ship but Jekyll and Hyde United reverted to type with back to back losses to Arsenal and Istanbul Basaksehir in early November.
The manner of the goals conceded in Istanbul, in a match where victory would have put United on the brink of reaching the Champions League last-16, was truly shambolic.
There was no hiding place for United’s player as Tottenham thrashed them 6-1 at Old Trafford
Mourinho took gleeful revenge on United by inflicting one of their most embarrassing losses
Knives were being sharpened again as former players turned pundits described United’s defending as ‘under 10s football.’
Meanwhile, Mauricio Pochettino, the man constantly linked with the United job, appeared on Sky’s Monday Night Football and spoke of his desire to manage again in the Premier League.
But just as many had written Solskjaer off, his team rebounded with four consecutive wins over Everton, West Brom, Basaksehir and Southampton either side of the international break.
Paul Pogba conceded a decisive penalty as United were beaten 1-0 at home by Arsenal
United were guilty of some schoolboy defending as Demba Ba scored for Istanbul Basaksehir
It piled the pressure on Solskjaer once again with Mauricio Pochettino waiting in the wings
Former Tottenham manager Pochettino appeared on Monday Night Football to express his desire to return to the dug-out
All the talk of successors briefly went away but, as they say, you’re only a game away from a crisis at United and their dismal Champions League exit – when they required just a point from two games – leaves Solskjaer with his back to the wall once again.
It’s also true that an opportunity for redemption is never too far away. And, after all, United are only five points off the top of the table with a game in hand.
After hosting City on Saturday, they face a trip to Sheffield United next week, a home game with Leeds and a Carabao Cup quarter-final at Everton, all before Christmas.
It could yet be a merry one for the United manager.