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Can Solskjaer break his boom-and-bust cycle at Man United?

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is going nowhere. It just depends on your point of view on the Manchester United manager as to what that statement actually means.

For the Old Trafford hierarchy — the club’s American owners, the Glazer family, and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward — it means only one thing, with United sources telling ESPN that Solskjaer has their unequivocal support and remains the man they expect to bring success back to the club. Solskjaer, 48, was given a new three-year contract this summer because his bosses believe he is on track to restore United to the summit of English and European football.

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Yet as United attempt to avoid a third home defeat in eight days when they face Villarreal in the Champions League on Wednesday, there is a counter position on Solskjaer among some supporters, former players and those within the game who are of the opinion that, while he is the man at the helm, the team will never escape the boom-and-bust cycle that has typified his almost three years in charge.

Solskjaer unquestionably also has strong support among many United fans too, with his status as a club legend — somebody who apparently understands the club — buying him the time and patience that predecessors David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho ultimately lacked. But results and success are the ultimate barometer by which a Manchester United manager is measured and, eventually, Solskjaer will have to measure up where it counts.

United are on a journey with Solskjaer, and progress has been made since he replaced Mourinho, initially as interim manager, in December 2018. But every defeat and poor performance raises the same old questions about his ability to do at Old Trafford what Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel have done at Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea, respectively. Quite simply, can he make United winners again or are they destined to be a team that always falls short because of his limitations as a coach and tactician? To that point, Wednesday’s Group F clash against Villarreal at Old Trafford has become a very uncomfortable game for Solskjaer because it gets to the very heart of that question and the debate about his managerial credentials.

Last season’s Europa League final defeat against Unai Emery’s Villarreal in Gdansk, when United lost 11-10 on penalties following a 1-1 draw, highlighted every flaw in Solskjaer’s tactical armoury. But the three defeats already suffered this season (against Young Boys, West Ham United and Aston Villa) suggest that Solskjaer has failed to rectify any of those weaknesses.

In Gdansk, Solskjaer was unable to devise a game plan to outfox Emery and a Villarreal team widely known for its ability to soak up pressure and hit opponents on the counter-attack. United played without imagination or variety and they fell into Emery’s trap of attacking largely down the right, despite the creative limitations of right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Solskjaer failed to change his team’s approach and waited until the 100th minute before making his first substitution. He also chose to leave Marcus Rashford on the pitch for the entire 120 minutes, despite the England forward producing one of his worst-ever performances for United. In isolation, Solskjaer’s failings in his first final as United boss could be put down to a bad night at the office, but his inability to quickly change tactics and make decisive substitutions has become a recurring theme.

The same issues contributed to United’s 2-1 defeat against Young Boys in Switzerland two weeks ago and were also present in the Carabao Cup loss to West Ham (stream the replay on ESPN+ in the U.S.) and Saturday’s Premier League defeat at home to Villa. Losing against Young Boys has given United a qualification headache as they must now realistically win all three home games in Group F and pick up at least a point away to Villarreal or Atalanta to qualify for the round of 16. But Villarreal will undoubtedly travel to Old Trafford with another smart game plan devised by Emery, and they will ask tough questions of United and Solskjaer — questions that the manager has repeatedly shown he is unable to answer.

Yet the valid excuse of lacking depth and quality last season — and when losing the Europa League semifinal to Sevilla in almost identical circumstances in 2020 — no longer applies following a summer spending spree that led to the signings of Cristiano Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane. Solskjaer now has the attacking quality and experience that his squad lacked in the past, so there really can be no excuses for failing to emerge from Group F and going deep into the competition. But anything other than a win on Wednesday will leave United struggling to qualify from a tight group.

So can Solskjaer produce the kind of performance against Villarreal that will silence the doubters and, crucially, improve a dismal Champions League record that has seen United lose seven of 11 games in the competition under his management? Some think he can, others doubt he ever will, but the only way to convince the sceptics is by delivering when it matters and avoiding the same old pitfalls that have tripped him up in the past.

We still don’t know where United are going under Solskjaer, but another failure against Villarreal will suggest they are just going round and round in circles on the road to nowhere.

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