The first victim of the fallout of the failed European Super League is the Chief Executive of Manchester United, Ed Woodward. Woodward took over the reins at United from David Gill in 2013 following Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement and is set to leave his position in controversial circumstances at the end of 2021. Despite all his success at a commercial level, Woodward’s time at United will be eventually remembered as a failure. He burned through three different permanent managers in Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho and spent a tonne of money on big-name transfers such as Di Maria, Falcao, Schweinsteiger, Pogba, Sanchez, Van De Beek etc. that failed to pay dividends.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) April 20, 2021
He was late to adapt to the modern model of having a director of football that oversees the technical aspect of the club and has also made some questionable contract extension decisions, to say the least. Woodward does come under a lot of criticism (and some of it is deserved) but his final major decision at Manchester United could end up being his lasting legacy at the club. After Jose Mourinho was sacked in December 2018, Woodward chose to appoint Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as an interim manager much to the surprise of fans and the media.
He then backed Solskjaer and gave him the full-time job after a good run of form and continued to support him through the rocky periods and there were calls for him to be sacked. Solskjaer was by no means an obvious appointment having previously spent time at relatively smaller clubs such as Cardiff City and Molde in Norway. There have been some troubling times but as time has passed, Solskjaer has vindicated the faith put in him by Woodward and proved most of the footballing public (including me) wrong.
Solskjaer has grown into management over time and his Manchester United side has been the second-best team in the league this season after Manchester City. He may not be a great tactical coach like Guardiola or Tuchel, but he has been able to form a system that gets the best out of the players. His man-management has also been excellent as he has pulled Luke Shaw out of his Mourinho induced football coma and helped youngsters like McTominay, Rashford and Greenwood thrive.
The question now arises though, nearly 30 months into the Solksjaer project, what does he have to show for his progress.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic – who played for United in the Mourinho era between 2016-2018 – echoed these sentiments after being knocked out by his former club in the Round of 16 of this season’s Europa League.
When asked if this current side is better than the one Zlatan played for his response was “I think it’s better, it looks better, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t win nothing. I think it was better than mine but I won trophies, that’s the big difference.”
Zlatan is alluding to the fact that Manchester United won the League Cup and Europa League in his first season in Manchester despite finishing 6th in the table. You can talk all you want about the “rings culture” that has seeped into football and that success is more than just silverware but at the end of the day, trophies are what matters to fans and players. Mourinho’s first season at United which included two trophies will be more fondly remembered than year two which saw him improve the side and finish 2nd in the league with 81 points but ended trophyless.
Even Jurgen Klopp had his doubters at Liverpool before their 2018/19 Champions League triumph and arguably the reason Mikel Arteta is still in a job at Arsenal is that he delivered a trophy in his first season.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) April 23, 2021
Similarly, with Solskjaer, he has undoubtedly improved this team with United set to finish within 10 points of winners Manchester City at the end of the league season. But he doesn’t have anything to show for it since you don’t get any medals for coming 2nd. To his credit, Ole reached three semi-finals in his first full season at the club but crucially ended up losing all of them.
United lost to Manchester City in the Carabao Cup semis, to Chelsea in the FA Cup and eventual winners Sevilla in the Europa League semi-final. Even this season, Ole chose to rotate his squad for the quarter-final of the FA Cup against Leicester City and ended up losing 3-1.
Ole needs to win a trophy sooner rather than later to legitimize his progress which could also act as a catalyst and springboard for success. If he fails to do this, it only takes a bad string of results across two months for him to get the sack. Just ask Mauricio Pochettino, who completely changed the mentality of Tottenham football club and took them to multiple top four finishes but crucially never won a trophy.
Pochettino ended up being sacked just months after taking his side to the Champions League final in Madrid. All it took was a few bad results and poof, years of hard work and improvement instantly evaporated because the trophy cabinet was empty.
Solskjaer needs to protect himself from this eventuality and this is why this season’s Europa League campaign is incredibly crucial for him and the team. Manchester United are through to the semi-finals where they face AS Roma before coming up against either Villareal or age-old rivals Arsenal in the final. The Europa League might not be the type of trophy that defines careers but winning is a habit and Solskjaer needs to learn from his mistakes and secure some silverware before the doubters start knocking on his door again.
[Image Credit: Manchester United]