MANCHESTER – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s firing by Manchester United on Sunday underscored the oddity of his appointment three years ago and flaws in the club’s determination to persevere so long with a manager whose credentials were constantly doubted as a vast investment in players made little significant impact on the pitch.
Even after chastening losses to fierce rivals Liverpool (5-0) and Manchester City (2-0) in the last month, United stuck by Solskjaer.
While Aston Villa and Norwich used the two-week international break to fire and bring in new managers, United’s leadership waited until after Saturday’s 4-1 collapse at Watford — a fifth loss in seven Premier League games — to finally decide change was required in the dugout.
“Ole will always be a legend at Manchester United and it is with regret that we have reached this difficult decision,” United said in a statement.
It was only Solskjaer’s legendary status that got him the job in the first place as Jose Mourinho’s successor and kept him in post for so long without winning a trophy.
“I wanted us to take the next step to challenge for the league, to win trophies,” Solskjaer said in an interview with United's in-house TV channel released a few hours after his firing, "but unfortunately I couldn’t get the results we needed and it’s time for me to step aside.”
There was only so much that fondness for scoring the dramatic late winner in the 1999 Champions League final could insulate the Norwegian from criticism that saw his future hang in the balance so often.
The three-year contract extension awarded to Solskjaer ahead of the season by the club's owners, the Glazer family, has now been terminated.
“While the past few weeks have been disappointing, they should not obscure all the work he has done over the past three years to rebuild the foundations for long-term success,” United said. “Ole leaves with our sincerest thanks for his tireless efforts as manager and our very best wishes for the future.
“His place in the club’s history will always be secure, not just for his story as a player, but as a great man and a manager who gave us many great moments. He will forever be welcome back at Old Trafford as part of the Manchester United family.”
The dismissal comes during a period of boardroom uncertainty with Ed Woodward’s protracted departure as executive vice chairman and no successor announced. Managing director Richard Arnold, who has been linked with the club’s day-to-day leadership role, is like Woodward another executive with more commercial than footballing experience.
There is no clear succession plan after the departure of the fourth manager since Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013. Instead, just like when Mourinho exited, United has turned to one of Ferguson’s former players. United said Michael Carrick, who was on Solskjaer’s coaching staff, would take charge “for forthcoming games, while the club looks to appoint an interim manager to the end of the season.”
Carrick’s first experience as a first-team coach will be a trip to Spain for a Champions League match at Villarreal in the group stage on Tuesday before guiding United against Premier League leader Chelsea on Sunday. United is seventh in the Premier League, which it hasn't won since 2013, already 12 points behind Chelsea and six from the Champions League places after 12 of 38 games.
That’s far from good enough for a team that finished second last season and was supposed to challenge for the title after more than $500 million of spending on players under Solskjaer, including the return of Cristiano Ronaldo in August and the signing of Jadon Sancho.
Solskjaer, who played for United from 1996-2007 under Ferguson, was handed the manager's job permanently in 2019 after a promising start at Old Trafford as caretaker, having rediscovered some of the team’s attacking verve and bringing calmness after the toxic end to Mourinho’s tenure.
“You restored some soul into the club,” former teammate Gary Neville said Sunday.
Solskjaer said he hoped he had “laid the foundations” for future success at United.
“I’m so honored and privileged to have been trusted to take the club forward and I really hope that I leave it in a better state than when I came," he said.
“The board and the owners have backed me in (terms of) bringing good people in, good players in and I think, or I know, I leave this club with a better squad."
United finished third and second in the last two seasons in the Premier League, suggesting the team was heading in the right direction under Solskjaer. However, the regression has been stark this season and he leaves as a sentimental appointment gone wrong, his tactical limitations clearly apparent and the team’s inconsistent performances leading to ever-present doubts among some fans and critics about his pedigree as a manager.
“When a manager can’t get a performance out of his players and results are getting as bad as they are, in this game, you’re going to lose your job," said Neville, who had resisted using his punditry job on Sky to call for his friend's firing. “He’s always had a result in the past that has pulled him out of the mire when you thought it might get a little bit too tricky for him, but this time the results have got worse and worse and worse.”
Solskjaer had been able to ride out previous stretches of underperformance, in part because of his popularity with fans as a former striker who took on legendary status because of his ability to come off the bench to score crucial winners.
But even the traveling United fans seemed to turn against him when he came over to applaud them after the Watford game when Donny van de Beek — a player he rarely used to much astonishment — scored the only goal after coming on as a substitute.
And there was a damning final critique from goalkeeper David De Gea.
“We don’t know what to do with the ball,” he said. “We don’t know how to defend properly. It was embarrassing."
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports