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This Manchester United team remains a mass of contradictions. That's why they'll stay in limbo for now

Manchester United vs Everton
(Image credit: PA)

An era ended on Saturday. A leader who came to power aided by a nostalgic narrative was ejected from an office he was unqualified to fill. 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, meanwhile, may have extended his tenure by illustrating his enduring ability to secure a win when he most needs one. Everton were beaten 3-1. Solskjaer, the man who got relegated with Cardiff, added Carlo Ancelotti to his notable list of scalps. 

He has beaten Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, Thomas Tuchel, Julian Nagelsmann, Unai Emery, Mauricio Pochettino and Maurizio Sarri; he has beaten some of them multiple times. He is also the hero of Old Trafford who has presided over their worst start to a season at home in 48 years. His win percentage remains stubbornly close to those of David Moyes and Louis van Gaal.

Solskjaerism is a mass of contradictions, of steepling highs and dramatic lows, of brilliant runs and terrible spells that offer the illusion of progress or regression, but with the possibility that, in the bigger picture, nothing very much actually changes. The last eight games may not be the end or even the beginning of the end as much as emblematic of his entire term.

There was the historic humiliation of the 6-1 thrashing by Tottenham, United’s joint heaviest home loss since 1930, but a response. There was a heartening unbeaten run that included a seismic triumph in Paris, echoing Solskjaer’s greatest night in a dugout. There was a reminder in successive setbacks of United’s almost inexplicable capacity to veer from good to bad, often without warning. There was the incisive, eviscerating high-speed counter-attacking and the lack of a Plan B when United encountered deep-lying defences. There were times where they had a solid platform as they conceded six times in seven matches and yet, amid a fine overall record, some hideously bad defending. There were games when United showed stirring signs of spirit and matches where it was conspicuous by its absence, points where they looked one of the best teams in Europe and others where they looked a lower-half Premier League outfit.

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There have been symbolic issues within his squad. The puzzle of Paul Pogba remains, in a spell when he has been in and out of the team, catalyst and culprit. The reliance on Bruno Fernandes was underlined both in the games when he was decisive, such as at Everton, and when he was not, like at home to Arsenal. Solskjaer’s use of three systems should serve to demonstrate he is more flexible tactically than is sometimes recognised, but solutions invariably only look temporary and United’s transfer business is such that their squad looks ideally suited to none of those shapes. None of which answered the question of whether Solskjaer is symptom or cause, problem or solution. The reappearance of Pochettino on television showed the spectre that has hung over him. Throw in a rant from a former team-mate – Roy Keane, in this instance – blaming everyone except his old friend and you could tick off every box in Solskjaer bingo. 

Along the way, a man with a century of goals for United brought up a century of games in charge. And yet, perhaps, if you average out the good times and the bad, the landscape may look similar. Solskjaer has altered the look of the team – younger, quicker, more British – but United got 66 points last season and could get 66 again. It might be enough for third, it may only get sixth. His second 100 games could resemble his first. 

The predictions that Everton would lead to Solskjaer’s demise look premature. As his reign has shown, it is the sort of game his United can lose 4-0 or win 3-1, where they can make the wrong or right sort of statement. And so they linger on in a Solskjaer-esque limbo.

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