Calling all Premier League chairmen: Proceed with caution

(Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

United’s demise under Solskjær shows how appointing a caretaker manager is rarely the best long-term solution

It all started so well.

However, since his permanent appointment in March following a hugely successful interim period, the fortunes of both Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Manchester United have taken a drastic turn for the worse. It has quickly become United’s worst start to a season in 30 years; a prime example that short-term success of a caretaker manager rarely pays off in the long run.

During his temporary reign, Solskjær managed 14 victories and two draws, breaking a number of records. With this came a groundswell of good will from players, fans and ex-teammates, urging the club’s chief executive Ed Woodward to appoint the Norwegian on a full-time basis. At the time, despite his flying start as interim manager, there were doubts about his suitability to the job in the long-term from those distanced from the club. The apparently unpopular opinion was drowned out by excessive hype, and the man who was supposed to lead a previously underachieving United side was given the reigns.

Then came the subsequent decline. Almost immediately after the Norwegian’s permanent appointment, the Red Devils suffered an immediate downturn in form. Poor form became a bad habit; the habit turned into regret at the ill-advised, overly emotional appointment. United now sit 12th in the Premier League, two points above the relegation zone, with nine points from eight games.

The almost comical slump has reached a point that seems to be irreversible under the club’s current leadership. While it is not entirely his making, the current situation is increasingly looking like a downward spiral Solksjær is unable to halt. In fact, the truth of the matter is that he was never good enough to manage a club like United. Having managed Cardiff (overseeing the back end of a relegation campaign) and enjoying a comparatively more successful stint at Molde, the line should have been drawn under the originally provisional agreement agreed between both parties last December. After all, statistical experts have determined that winning the Norwegian Tippeligaen is an achievement of similar proportion to that of League 1 in England, hardly an impressive feat. 

The Solskjær-United debacle may be the highest profile case of the like given the club’s historic standing in the game and subsequent decline since the retirement of an all-time great in Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013. In a situation such as United’s, restructuring and sensible investment needed to be undertaken, overseen by a genuinely world class manager worthy of the position. In appointing the Norwegian and neglecting a full-scale, patient rebuild of the team, the club’s hierarchy ironically failed to take sufficient care in replacing their caretaker boss. At the highest level, this is inexcusable. However, the warning signs were there, as some examples in the past have demonstrated…

There was Di Matteo at Chelsea, who won the Champions League as caretaker before being sacked within five months of becoming permanent boss as a result. At Tottenham, similarly to Di Matteo and Solskjaer, an ex-player was appointed to the full-time job after a successful period as caretaker. Tim Sherwood was also sacked within five months. As part of the inevitable extended comedown following the high of Leicester’s 2015-16 title-winning season, first team staff member Craig Shakespeare took over when mastermind Claudio Ranieri was harshly sacked. Shakespeare lasted even less time and was relieved of his duties by the Foxes just over four months after his permanent appointment. In all of these cases, as with the plight of Solskjær, a rash appointment based on short-term thinking found the club in a position more severe than the one they started in.

Di Matteo won the Champions League to round off a remarkable period as Chelsea’s interim coach in 2012, but things went downhill thereafter. (Image courtesy of Sky Sports).

The role of a caretaker manager is to re-establish order and raise competition for places with a fresh look at a squad. Often, it is not about the man brought in, more so the immediate reaction of the players and an inevitable upturn in form, particularly at top clubs with talented players already in the ranks. Despite this, for long-term success, good results in the short term should be traded for a slower, more gradual and eventually successful upheaval and maintenance of long-term stability.

“Ole’s at the wheel,” they said. The media-led frenzy accompanied by backing from Ferguson himself led to confirmation of the Norwegian’s full-time status. If Ole was at the wheel, it is true that he successfully manoeuvred the start of a harmonious journey in that period. However, having steadied the ship he soon proved himself to be lacking the skillset to control the wheel in inevitable adversity, leading the ship further and further into the onrushing storm awaiting him. Now, with the international break upon us, it may well be time for Ed Woodward and those above Solskjær’s head to admit defeat and pull the plug.

Those in high-ranking positions of power must do what’s best for the club by removing sentimentality as a valid reason for manager appointment. Appointing a club legend has the potential to tarnish their status as a player, although it seems that in rare cases such as that of Frank Lampard; he is untouchable, and perhaps fairly so. It may also have something to do with the circumstances surrounding Chelsea and their transfer embargo, and the fact that Lampard has built up a decent reputation for himself with Derby last season. His Chelsea side are also five points better off than United, with the two going in opposite directions. Regardless, Manchester United — or any other Premier League club for that matter — should not be appointing league 1 standard managers.

There is seemingly one positive that can be taken from the debacle, although not for those affiliated with the Red Devils. Given the scale of the error made by one of the game’s biggest names, United may have taught a valuable lesson to clubs in future who will undoubtedly be more wary of hastily appointing a caretaker manager based on immediate results.

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