It was the overarching undoing of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The moniker that he couldn’t extinguish. And one of the flailing underachievements that was deployed by critics when he was sacked. That Solskjaer didn’t manage to win a trophy was a growing source of angst and frustration for Manchester United.
A club of United’s stature shouldn’t go four seasons without silverware, even though it must be remembered that there are only three domestic cups up for grabs each season plus a European one for those involved. Yet, what undermined Solskjaer’s tenure most was that he led United to five semi-finals but only one final, which they lost.
Such is the level of Manchester City, and Liverpool and Chelsea, that United are hard pushed to provide a reasonable case for Premier League title hopes in the very near future. That is despite the huge expense that has been laid out to assemble one of the most highly paid squads in history. Nevertheless, actions on the pitch highlight that United should turn their focus on to cups for this season.
Breaking their recent hoodoo provides a further incentive, as does the notion that interim manager Ralf Rangnick needs to further assert himself on his newly acquired team. A run in a cup competition should not be negated by the German coach even if the pressure from above is to achieve a top-four finish in the Premier League.
Winning trophies is something that United have long done, but not nearly enough in recent seasons. While Solskjaer was still in charge in September, United exited the League Cup at the third round against West Ham United at Old Trafford. Heavy team rotation partly led to that early arrivederci from a competition that United should be striving to win.
This evening’s FA Cup third-round tie with Aston Villa should be seen as another opportunity for Rangnick and United to manoeuvre themselves along another trophy avenue. Yes, in the league United have won three, drew one and lost one in the five games since Rangnick arrived in early December, but there has been little improvement overall both in terms of team performances and individual displays.
A cup game, therefore, should not immediately adorn a less significant mantra. United crave success and although the league is one route, the FA Cup — along with European competition — is another. What’s more, a run in one competition can feed into the other. “We’ve got to start playing well and winning,” Harry Maguire, United’s captain, said last week.
“This team finished second last year and we have a better and bigger squad this year, so we have to show the right attitude. We have big players in the team; leaders. I’m sick of repeating myself but it can’t continue like this — we need to go on a proper run, starting Monday.”
Confusion starting to reign
For Rangnick’s sake, and that of his medium-term prospects as the club’s manager, he could do with an upturn. Following the defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers, the German coach was questioned as to whether the players are still buying into his methods — after just a single month in charge! — and he stood firm despite the unconvincing displays.
“I can only tell you about the squad – obviously I don’t know about the atmosphere inside the club,” Rangnick said on Friday. “I can only speak about the players, locker room, coaching staff: everybody was very disappointed after the game, about the result and the performance, especially in the first half.
“Now we have four days of training, yesterday, today, tomorrow, day after tomorrow before the Aston Villa game and my job, our job, is that we make sure we show a different performance against Aston Villa.”
There are questions surrounding the narrow 4-2-2-2 system that is being used and the manner in which his team are trying to press opponents. The substitution of the lively Mason Greenwood against Wolves brought boos from the Old Trafford crowd but when Bruno Fernandes came on and played well there were cheers. Confusion, at all levels of the clubs, seems to reign at the moment.
In the end, results are the hard currency against which United and Rangnick will be judged, but squander the chance against Steven Gerrard’s well-drilled Villa side this evening and another opportunity will have passed them by.