MANCHESTER, England — At the start of a week that could prove a defining one for his reign at Manchester United, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needed a win on Sunday. He did not get it.
Aston Villa, newly promoted from the Championship, turned up at Old Trafford having lost 20 of their previous 24 away games in the Premier League and left with a 2-2 draw. Next up for Solskjaer is Tottenham and Jose Mourinho on Wednesday and then a derby with Manchester City three days later.
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Ninth in the table and closer to the relegation places than the top four, these are nervous times for the Norwegian. We have reached the point where he is living off the goodwill of executive vice chairman Ed Woodward and the Glazers. It is United’s worst start to a season since 1988.
To put it into context, Solskjaer’s United have taken 26 points from the 22 league games since he was appointed permanent manager in March. Mauricio Pochettino was sacked by Tottenham after collecting 25 points from his last 22 games in charge. Unai Emery was dismissed by Arsenal having taken 28 points from his final 22 games.
“The decision has been taken due to results and performances not being at the level required,” said Arsenal in their statement. “Regrettably domestic results at the end of last season and beginning of this season have been extremely disappointing,” was Tottenham’s official reason for getting rid of Pochettino.
Even framed within United’s recent history, Solskjaer is in unchartered territory. Mourinho took 35 points from his last 22 games before he was sacked. Before Louis van Gaal got the axe, it was 37 points from his last 22. David Moyes managed 36 points in his last 22 games in charge.
Solskajer is still trying to stay positive.
“I think there is loads of evidence these boys are closer to winning games than losing games,” said the United manager. “Of course we have to tip those margins in our advantage. The first half wasn’t good enough. We should have been coming out of the traps quicker.”
He was right, and for 45 minutes, Villa had the run of Old Trafford. They had the game’s outstanding player, Jack Grealish, strolling around picking pass after pass. After 25 minutes, he had been fouled four times.
His dart forward after 11 minutes took him past Andreas Pereira before bending an exquisite strike beyond David De Gea and into the top corner. It will be in the running for goal of the season. Grealish really should be playing for England.
It took United more than 20 minutes to register a shot on target, and even that was a tame effort from Anthony Martial at Tom Heaton’s near post. The frustration inside the stadium was already bubbling. Trezeguet had a goal ruled out for offside, and as the resulting free kick was being taken, the home fans roared United forward with a simmering anger.
One supporter in the Sir Bobby Charlton Stand stood to scream at Solskjaer to “get that Pereira off,” but he had barely time to sit down when Juan Mata and Fred worked a short corner to the Brazilian to whip a wonderful first-time cross towards the back post. Marcus Rashford headed against the post and Heaton was unlucky to see the ball rebound off his back and into the net. United went in at half-time level but it said everything about the performance that MUTV’s analysis at the break centred on how fortunate they had been.
At least they started the second half like a team who had been given a week to prepare with all XI spared the gruelling midweek trip to Kazakhstan.
Martial and Aaron Wan-Bissaka forced Heaton into saves, but there was nothing the former United keeper could do when Fred’s cross flicked off Wesley and reached Victor Lindelof at the far post. The Swede’s header looped back across goal and inside the post for his first goal of the season.
Disaster averted. Or not quite. The lead lasted less than two minutes, and United have now squandered winning positions three times in the past eight games.
Tyrone Mings was in so much space in the penalty area when he smashed his volley past De Gea that he didn’t want to celebrate fearing VAR would make him look silly. He needn’t have worried as the replays showed he was being played onside by Brandon Williams, who had been slow to get out.
Confidence is fragile, and United have kept just one clean sheet in their past 13 games. Aston Villa started the day with the worst away record in the division and yet they left disappointed that they only came away with a point.
Solskjaer’s plan is clear, and it is no accident that United have the youngest average starting XI in the Premier League at just over 25, but there is no getting away from the fact that results — two wins from six games in all competitions and four wins from 14 league games — have been poor.
Gary Neville has urged his former teammate to “protect himself” by spending money in January, particularly on a midfield that has looked threadbare since the summer. Solskjaer sees it differently and insists his focus is on the club’s future and not his own short-term prospects. But much like Mourinho’s availability cast a shadow over Van Gaal during the Dutchman’s final months, Pochettino’s presence is lingering over Solskjaer.
The long-term vision is admirable but, if nothing else, results including another setback against Villa have given Woodward and the Glazers a decision to make. A week that serves up both Tottenham and City does not offer much respite.