Rewind to a year ago, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was being lauded as a genius by the red half of Manchester and far beyond.
His controversial appointment as caretaker boss had been followed by eight matches and eight wins, and his detractors were silenced as they watched his team deliver on the pitch.
Sitting high in the stands, Ed Woodward looked on with a wry smile, and a few seats down Sir Alex Ferguson can’t have been too displeased either.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s masterplan has turned into a bit of a mess at Man United this season
United are 38 points behind Liverpool as they desperately chase a top-four place
Last summer, despite an alarming slump towards the end of last season, there were a plethora of positive stories emerging from Old Trafford about how Solskjaer was pushing on with turning his vision into reality.
He planned to return United to their glory days by filling his team full of youth and high energy, coupled with a host of big signings, and having them play vibrant, faced-paced and attacking football.
Twelve months on from those heady early days, and the wheels of Ole’s reign are starting to come off. The last nine Premier League games have garnered just three wins, and defeats by the likes of Watford and Burnley.
United supporters’ anger has risen further and further in recent weeks amid the worsening results. That has seen the rise of a despicable chant about burning the Glazers and chief executive on a bonfire, and Woodward’s house was attacked by thugs.
So where did it all go wrong? Why has his masterplan unravelled at an alarming rate, leaving United 38 (yes, thirty eight) points behind old rivals Liverpool and miles behind City?
Here, Sportsmail takes a look at the flagging elements of Solskjaer’s dream, and how United’s demise has left his job in danger…
To compel United’s woes, fierce rivals Liverpool are the runaway Premier League leaders
The youth revolution
At Manchester United, youth has always been key. After the Busby Babes and Fergie’s Fledglings, all eyes were on Ole as he claimed he would provide more of the same in the years to come.
United have fallen far behind City and Liverpool in the league table, and Solskjaer’s plan has always been to overhaul his squad and bring the average age down.
There were huge targets in the summer, the likes of Presnel Kimpembe, Sean Longstaff and James Maddison, but none of that trio arrived.
It wasn’t all bad news though, as the club splashed the cash on Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James, for a combined spend of £145million. Ole couldn’t complain that he wasn’t being backed.
In January, that was made even more clear with the £62m arrival of 25-year-old Bruno Fernandes from Sporting Lisbon.
Daniel James has performed admirably in his first season, but he already looks exhausted
Aaron Wan-Bissaka is a marvellous defender but has obvious deficiencies going forward
But for all their promise, it has been far from plain sailing. James, just 22 years old, has played far more minutes than many would have expected, and in reality he’s been on the pitch for too long.
Thirty five appearances for club and country by the end of January is a punishing schedule for any player, let alone James, whose slight frame means he is knocked off his feet a painful amount.
Maguire, 26, and Wan-Bissaka, 22, have been mainstays in the defence, but haven’t quite lived up to their billing. Maguire hasn’t yet justified his mammoth £80m price tag, and whenever there’s a mistake in United’s back-line, the No 5 is always in view.
Wan-Bissaka is brilliant defensively, as Crystal Palace fans have always pointed out, but his obvious limitations going forward stifle United on the break.
It’s all well and good to prioritise youth, and United should be praised for placing faith in the young side they have assembled, but sometimes you can ask too much of them.
Harry Maguire has struggled to justify his £80million price tag in his opening months at United
The arrival of a number of young starlets has, of course, meant the exit of some high-profile names, both to balance the books and to facilitate the transition to Solskjaer’s vision of fast-paced football.
While sending packing the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Chris Smalling and Antonio Valencia has done no harm, Romelu Lukaku’s departure is strongly felt, with the Belgian now banging in the goals for Inter Milan in Serie A.
The truth of the matter is that they’ve let go a bonafide goalscorer, a guaranteed 20-a-season man, and not replaced him. The inevitable happened when the overburdened Marcus Rashford picked up an injury, leaving Anthony Martial to carry the goalscoring threat on his own, a near-impossible task.
A scramble around on deadline day produced Odion Ighalo to boost the threat, but United are still weak in attack and that is solely down to poor planning.
The Old Trafford outfit’s chase for a striker smacked of desperation, and they have only secured a short-term fix to a long-term issue, another plaster for a problem that will just become apparent again in a few months’ time.
Romelu Lukaku almost guaranteed 20 goals a season, but United let him leave
Solskjaer is trying hard to make things work with his young players, but there’s only so much he can do before sending them out to battle. The likes of Diogo Dalot (20), Victor Lindelof (24) and Eric Bailly (25) all still have youth on their side, but their performances, or lack of, have left a lot to be desired.
Dalot netted his first Manchester United goal on a Tranmere mud-bath at the end of January, but there’s a big difference between that and the Premier League. He has started just one top-flight game this season, and that was a 1-0 defeat at Newcastle in which he was hooked after an hour.
Bailly has not played a game all season following knee surgery in the summer, and even before that had been sidelined for 34 matches since his arrival in the North West. It is devastating for the player, but United need players they can rely on.
The ‘youthquake’ that had been promised at Old Trafford has turned into more of a minor tremor, but it’ll certainly still be keeping Solskjaer awake at night.
Diogo Dalot (third left) scored his first Manchester United goal at Tranmere in January
Eric Bailly has been stopped in his tracks by injury and United haven’t been able to rely on him
The Pogba problem
A much-discussed topic at Old Trafford and beyond is that of Paul Pogba. Will he stay at Old Trafford, or is he heading back to mainland Europe to continue his career?
Juventus and Real Madrid have both been linked with the £300,000-a-week midfielder, and he certainly isn’t settled at United.
He has played very little this season, due to a series of injuries, and hasn’t justified the £89million fee they paid to bring him back from Turin.
Solskjaer needed the Frenchman to be his talisman, the man to lead the kids and take a game by the scruff of its neck, dragging United over the line to a much-needed three points when needed.
Instead, he’s been MIA for the recent poor performances. In the defeat by Burnley, he still hadn’t recovered from his ankle injury and while the likes of Ashley Westwood and Jack Cork made the difference, Pogba was nowhere to be seen.
Paul Pogba could yet leave the club, but his season has also been hampered by injuries
Style of play
This United side are now a counter-attacking team, and it has worked to good effect in some games this season – namely Manchester City away and Spurs at home in the league – but they have struggled to break down their opponents more often than not.
Runs are being made for the quick and energetic play Solskjaer is so desperate to implement, but the balls aren’t being delivered. While Martial and Rashford get behind the defence, other players all too often opt for a simple pass. It could be a lack of confidence, it could be a lack of ability… in reality, it’s probably a bit of both.
They had a similar problem back in 2013, when Robin van Persie had recently arrived at the club and Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge. Rio Ferdinand, on a BT Sport pundit’s appearance recently, explained Fergie’s response to the situation.
Rio Ferdinand (left) spoke last month about Sir Alex Ferguson’s reaction to their play
‘We’ve played together for one season,’ Ferdinand said. ‘Robin was top goalscorer in the league at the time and Sir Alex Ferguson walks into a meeting room and we all think he’s going to give us a pat on the back and say well done.
‘He said “I’ve bought a player here that is making runs”. He showed us about six or seven clips, he probably had about 30, and he hammered Michael Carrick, [Paul] Scholes, me and other players that we weren’t passing the ball.’
Solskjaer needs to follow the same tack. There is a creative, Pogba-shaped hole in the middle of United’s team, and they need to fill it.
Fred and Nemanja Matic are ineffective stop-gaps. Scott McTominay brings some fight, but he’s out injured as well, and the energetic, youthful policy is just looking a bit drab.
Solskjaer needs to solve the same problem at Old Trafford and ensure the strikers get service
Season at a glance
- Premier League
- Premier League
- League One
- League Two
- Scottish Premiership
- Scottish Div 1
- Scottish Div 2
- Scottish Div 3
- Ligue 1
- Serie A
- La Liga
We could – and do – talk for days about the on-field problems, but much of the blame must be placed at the feet of the non-playing staff too. Woodward, yes, but Solskjaer too. It’s a big job that he just doesn’t look ready for.
The Norwegian, lauded as a player in these parts, was hailed as the man to lead the United revolution and take them back to their rightful place at the top of the Premier League. In reality, they’re further away now than they ever were under Jose Mourinho.
The elephant in the room is that the job, the style of play, and the presence of so many young players is perfect for Mauricio Pochettino. Perhaps unjustly sacked by Spurs, he is out of a job and may yet still take the reins at United.
It would be harsh to completely write off Solskjaer now, and there is still time for him to turn it around, but should United miss out on the Champions League this season then it will be hard for him to carry on.
While he has been backed by the board, the fans are turning and, ironically, the mentality of his time there as a player could be his undoing. While he pulled on the shirt at United, there was a winning mentality, and anything less was failure.
Right now, all there seems to be is failure, and there’s only so long the club can allow that to continue with Solskjaer at the helm, especially when United’s two biggest rivals, Liverpool and Manchester City, look light years ahead of them.
The Norwegian has looked out of his depth at times this season, with United down in seventh