By Dharnish Iqbal.
As Manchester United prepared to face Arsenal in a meeting between two old Premier League rivals, it seemed as though, in the face of impending doom, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had once again gotten out of jail.
After a humiliating 6-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur, Man United admirably flipped the script, going unbeaten for five games and taking impressive scalps against acclaimed European outfits, PSG and RB Leipzig. On top of that, there was a patient Premier League win against Newcastle, and a chess-like draw with Chelsea including a welcome clean sheet.
Then, a humiliating defeat to Istanbul Basaksehir in the Champions League is exactly what Ole didn’t need, nor what anybody expected. After being out-smarted by Arsenal on Sunday, it meant disappointing back to back defeats.
The gut-punch in Istanbul continues a cycle that United fans are now acclimatised to under Solskjaer: Bad results, being on the verge of implosion, before advancing to the ‘we are back’ stage after a few good results. This can lead some to wishfully thinking Solskjaer has cracked it, before a crushing result like the one in Turkey drags United back to the depths of uncertainty ahead of another game.
With respect to Istanbul Basaksehir, this should have been a routine win for United. A chance to flex the muscles and regain confidence before a tough lunchtime kick-off on Saturday against high-flying Everton.
Instead, Solskjaer has heaped more pressure on himself and the United players with this surprising Champions League defeat. It is almost as if the manager needs that pressure to motivate the players. The Norwegian’s biggest Achilles heel throughout his tenure was shown again on Wednesday night, as for two years he has struggled to find solutions against teams that defend deep — something that worked like a charm for Basaksehir.
United look utterly devoid of creativity when not being able to hit teams on the counter. It was a bewildering performance, epitomised when United got back into the game at 2-1 but then barely worked the Basaksehir goalkeeper in the second half. You would think Solskjaer would have fired his players up after the break, but it didn’t appear so.
Some United fans are probably nostalgic for tepid first half Man United performances under Sir Alex Ferguson, expectant that the Scot would unleash his rage at half time, demanding, and consistently getting, a better performance.
Others, though, are tired of historic comparisons from the Ferguson days. Mostly because it is a constant reminder of how no manager has come close to replacing what he brought to the club.
The bare facts are that United’s plethora of attacking options against a team sitting 7th in the Turkish league, mustered two shots on target. That is simply unacceptable. Istanbul never really looked in danger of throwing away their lead as United moved the ball from side to side, scratching their heads in desperate search of an opening.
Much was made in the summer of Solskjaer not getting the signings he wanted, especially after the lengthy Jadon Sancho transfer saga. But when you boast the attacking players that United do, and still can’t pick the lock, attention turns to how these players are being coached set up.
Istanbul’s opener was an absolute gift, a hoof up the pitch to a completely unmarked Demba Ba after United committed everyone forward. The goal underlines the need for the not-so-glamorous but highly effective Scott McTominay (who was brought on later) and Fred in deeper midfield positions.
I can’t even pic.twitter.com/ZQDk0fs915
— Sam McGuire (@SamMcGuire90) November 4, 2020
The biggest question, as always with Solskjaer, is does he have Man United moving in the right direction? A question he will have to deal with again this week following the manner of this defeat.
He dragged United to third last year, just. Deadwood from previous reigns under Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal has been cleared somewhat, and, at times, boosted by the Bruno Fernandes signing, there has been some sparkling counter-attacking football, particularly after lockdown.
However, the search for consistency goes on in what has been a stuttering start to the season. Results like the one in Turkey will only hinder his reign and his case for extending it. The major worry is that, even in his second full season, Solskjaer still doesn’t know what to do when a team sits deep, regardless of the personnel at his disposal.
It is getting harder and harder to defend Solskjaer. In a gruelling, unforgiving season, he is running out of time to get United back on track, and with Mauricio Pochettino looking charming and intelligent on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football show earlier this week, and the club making noises that they will approach the Argentine, a shadow looms each time Solskjaer falters.