Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will always be defined by a game with two injury-time goals, and it won’t be one where Watford got them both. The last-gasp strike that springs to mind when Solskjaer is mentioned will remain his own strike in the Nou Camp in 1999, not Emmanuel Dennis’ 96th-minute effort at Vicarage Road.
Manchester United recognised as much with a statement that acknowledged their sacked manager remains a legend. “His place in the club’s history will always be secure,” they said. So much of the Solskjaer project revolved around history that it was the constant; he sought to remember it and re-enact it but, dismissed after a 4-1 defeat, he emulated Ron Atkinson, not Sir Alex Ferguson.
United’s recent spell has been reminiscent of Ferguson’s awful autumn of 1989, but without its Mark Robins moment and subsequent surge to glory. The winner as player was the nearly man as a manager, the serial semi-finalist. United were seventh in the table when Solskjaer came sixth in the sack race.
His shortcomings were cruelly exposed by their inability to act. Realistically, the 5-0 evisceration by Liverpool signalled the need for change; so, too, the Manchester derby defeat. Solskjaer limped on to Watford by a board who placed too much faith in the likeable legend, ignoring a host of better-qualified managers as, one by one, they took jobs.
United are left with an interim for the rest of the season. They have hamstrung themselves by overlooking Mauricio Pochettino and Antonio Conte until it was too late. United believed in their own hype, in Solskjaer’s doctrine of United exceptionalism meaning it did not matter if he wasn’t a world-class manager because he loved the club. They gave him a new three-year contract in the summer. They did not see a crisis coming and did not react in time when it did.
Maybe Solskjaer should always have been an interim. Instead, his reign lasted three years. He was a brilliant caretaker, an antidote to the toxicity of Jose Mourinho, his enthusiasm propelling United to 14 wins in 17 games.
Yet the nature of Solskjaer’s reign meant they could veer between boom and bust, between counter-attacking triumphs over supposedly superior managers to embarrassing defeats. Long before the run of five losses in seven league games that finished him off were Cardiff and Astana and Sheffield United. Before the 5-0 to Liverpool was the 6-1 to Mourinho’s Tottenham.
Watford 4 Manchester United 1: player ratings
Despite a couple of notable wins over Paris Saint-Germain, Solskjaer’s Champions League record was undistinguished. Yet he could point to Premier League finishes of sixth, third and second as evidence of progress.
Had he gone before May’s Europa League final, it could have been with the sense he had steered the club in the right direction, resetting the culture, promoting youth, adding an upbeat air. But his passivity in Gdansk was a sign he had run out of ideas. He was simply relying on his premier players to do something. It was an illustration United lacked the capacity to create courtesy of training-ground moves implemented by better managers. Solskjaer was the throwback, the great ex-player in a managerial world of tactics nerds.
And this season descended into farce, unravelling to a startlingly degree. The signing of Cristiano Ronaldo unbalanced everything. Jadon Sancho became the new Donny van de Beek, a player Solskjaer did not know what to do with. United’s defending was shambolic, their side lacking in shape or spirit.
Nostalgia was no answer to their failures in the modern world. Solskjaer leaves United with a better squad than he inherited, even if that underlines their underachievement this season, but in a similar position: miles from recreating the glory days he enjoyed as a player.