United’s misplaced Solskjaer loyalty out of step with modern football

Thierry Henry’s reaction to Brendan Rodgers’ sacking as Liverpool manager in October 2015 has become a meme. On Sky Sports pundit duty, the Frenchman jumps in his chair and gasps, almost audibly. His mouth is gaping and his eyes blank as he struggles to comprehend the news that presenter Ed Chamberlin is announcing.

What makes it funnier is Jamie Carragher, the Liverpool legend who played out his final season under Rodgers at Anfield, failing to hide his discomfort at Henry tapping his knee as part of the shock. His pan to the camera has become legendary.

@ThierryHenry

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— Jamie Carragher (@Carra23) October 4, 2020

But there is a serious point behind the humour; the decision to make a change was incredibly harsh and far from expected. Rodgers was just over a year on from an unlikely title tilt; but in galvanising a young, unfancied squad to the brink of their first success of that ilk for 24 years, he may have contributed to his own ultimate downfall.

Nobody thought Liverpool would launch a serious challenge for the Champions League places in 2013/14, they hadn’t played in the competition for five years when the they qualified again, let alone won the Premier League itself, but once they’d gone toe to toe with Manchester City, playing swashbuckling football which led to a late, spectacular collapse, there was a different perception of what was possible.

Having initially been brought in to instil philosophy and gradually build the club up and away from midtable mediocrity, suddenly Liverpool were viewed as a major player again. The sales of Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling, the talisman and hot prospect of the title-chasing side, in the following two summers didn’t help Rodgers’ cause, but finishing sixth in 2014/15, eight points out from the Champions League places and 25 off the pace set by league winners Chelsea was seen as a step backwards, where as it may have been viewed more kindly if the progression had been more natural. It hadn’t been an easy start to the following campaign, but Liverpool acted after a 1-1 draw in the Merseyside Derby at Everton; far from the greatest result in the world but not one that, in itself, warranted a dismissal not 24 hours later.

Yet Liverpool were not criticised for their trigger-happy approach; there were no cries of foul play against Rodgers, just a general acceptance that he’d been treated harshly. When Jurgen Klopp – one of the most highly-rated, progressive coaches in the world after his work with Borussia Dortmund, where he won back-to-back Bundesliga titles before Bayern Munich set forth on a seemingly unstoppable dynasty, and reached a Champions League final, became available – Liverpool acted out of opportunity rather than desperation.

The simple fact was Rodgers didn’t have the track record to compete with Klopp, and if the Reds didn’t move quickly, they would miss the boat on a rare occurrence: a managerial superstar becoming available mid-season. Klopp took a risk at the time too; Liverpool needed nurturing and sound investment, but were not ready to challenge. Rodgers had instilled a style not too dissimilar to his, based on high pressing and intensity, but his recruitment left a lot to be desired. In the end, he left a fairly healthy foundation for Klopp to build on — he has since won the Champions League and Premier League titles, turning the club into a powerhouse in world football. Even though it could be argued Rodgers deserved a chance to take them further than he did, he represented a risk and the board were ruthless. It proved to be the best decision in Liverpool’s modern history.

There was a similar story at Chelsea last season; Frank Lampard, a legend as a player and somebody who had steered the ship through choppy waters after Maurizio Sarri’s exit in 2019, with a transfer ban and the sale of Eden Hazard hanging over them, was cast aside after his first difficult spell. He’d brought in a new line of academy products and cemented Champions League football, but despite sitting top of the league early into last season after a mega spending spree, a bad run of form was all Roman Abramovich needed to make a change, with Thomas Tuchel improving on what Lampard had left him, making the Blues a tougher unit to beat almost instantly, winning the Champions League and now guiding them to the top of the Premier League.

Nuno Espírito Santo won half his league games in charge of Tottenham Hotspur, but he was never the man Daniel Levy wanted. By any metric, his results weren’t a disaster, the problem was personnel. Spurs had chased Antonio Conte, and panicked their way down a list after he said no in the summer as they sought to replace Jose Mourinho; once it became clear his stance had softened, Nuno was on borrowed time.

Premier League clubs who are ambitious have realised they also need to be swift, time is now even less of a given and loyalty is dissolving faster than before, because there is no time to wait. Manuel Pellegrini was given until the end of his final season before Pep Guardiola took over at Manchester City; there was no animosity towards him, but the realisation that Guardiola, their dream manager, had become available. The next appointment is beginning to impact the current incumbent’s future more and more.

While Manchester United continue to back Ole Gunnar Solskjaer against a backdrop of rival fans ironically cheering his name, their direct competition have all been proactive in their managerial choices. Every passing week seems to deepen the crisis at Old Trafford; loyalty has been a badge of honour before, but now it appears more of a hindrance.

Elite football is only going to become more ruthless. The thought process is no longer based on allowing situations to play out and improve, even if merited; it is now centred on the idea of chasing the greener grass on the other side. If a better, more high profile or more suitable candidate is out there, little else matters. The evidence suggests ignoring this approach could leave clubs behind.

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