Manchester United have tumbled out of the FA Cup, are about to exit Europe and their quest for Champions League qualification is hanging by a thread
A key question arising from Manchester United’s listless 1-0 defeat in the Champions League quarter-final first leg against Barcelona on Wednesday is what – if anything – would Jose Mourinho have done differently to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had he still been in charge?
Or – to expand that a little further – what could Jose Mourinho have done differently had he still been in charge? The answer to both queries is probably nothing.
Barcelona are just about favourites for the Champions League but with justifiable reason. They’ve got Lionel Messi for one thing and have dependable players in most positions, as well as the bench.
The difference between Solskjaer and Mourinho is Solskjaer is allowed to get away with it. One, because he’s a club legend, having won them the Champions League in 1999 and two, because he’s been exceptionally lucky in the early part of his United managerial career.
Now that the luck has evaporated, United are regressing to pretty much what they were under Jose.
They have lost four games out of their last five. They have gone out of the FA Cup and slipped right out of contention for a return to the Champions League through their league position. They are on the brink of going out of Europe, with a battering at Camp Nou to look forward to.
Their season, in actual fact, is more or less where you’d expect it to be, whether Mourinho or Solskjaer were in charge.
One element perhaps sustaining Solskjaer through this results famine is the win against PSG achieved in the last round of the Champions League.
That victory – impressive in the sense that they overturned a 2-0 first-leg lead and won it right at the death – is seen as a hark-back to a time when United did it for fun under Ferguson. It got to the very root of the United identity and produced the magic once taken for granted.
What is overlooked is how fortunate United were. Not only were PSG without Neymar – which is like Barca missing Messi – but they either scored or won a penalty with every shot they had on goal.
The result was so beautiful – in a United sense – that Ed Woodward immediately furnished Ole Gunnar with a three-year contract. There is no question that he improved the mood at the training ground and gave everyone belief but it was a remarkably short-sighted decision, based on the flimsiest of evidence.
Currently, United are no better than a 50-50 shot to win any game they go into. It’s because they are in hock to the goalkeeping skills of David de Gea at one end and reliant on an unsustainable output in front of goal at the other.
That is scarcely different to the Mourinho days. Witness the heroics De Gea performed in the big game against Spurs at Wembley early in the Solskjaer reign. He made a career-high number of saves that afternoon in a display not dissimilar to the one the season before against Arsenal at the Emirates.