The handwriting on the wall begins to become much clearer for a manager when his usually most dependable and supposedly loyal, high-profile players begin to not murmur but instead openly declare in public the obvious need for improvements.
This is what’s already beginning to happen at Manchester United for Norwegian boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, with Paul Pogba stepping up in turn after Bruno Fernandes publicly to call for immediate, major changes at Old Trafford.
Understandably, Solskjaer will quite likely roll out the damage-control trolley in the following days and counter with the usual, expected comments about players showing how much they care, hence seeking release in venting their frustrations to the media and etcetera, but despite any public attempts to play down the issue in attempting to save face, the Norwegian will have had spent enough time in dressing rooms in his playing career to to sift out the chaff from the wheat when it comes to players questioning tactics or mentality when it comes to attributing fault.
Obviously it goes without saying that players by and large do not make loud, insistent calls for improvement when things are going well and they certainly have no need at all to resort to such actions when they are proud and happy to play for a manager who is justifiably dominant and a highly-respected personality within, as well as beyond, the confines of the club.
Consider this – when did the Etihad manager Pep Guardiola or Anfield’s boss Jurgen Klopp last have to put up with senior players publicly broaching the need for imminent “change” or denouncing their own team’s ineffectiveness after experiencing negative results on the pitch?
Along similar lines, did Sir Alex Ferguson ever have to read about, or hear, comments emanating indirectly from his players via the media along the lines of those issued by an obviously frustrated Pogba after the Red Devils’ 4-2 loss on Saturday at Leicester City?
“We have been having these kind of games for a long time and haven’t found the problem,” Pogba said post-match at the King Power Stadium. “We have conceded easy and stupid goals.
“We know that the fans were going to push and put pressure on us and we need to be more mature, play with more experience and arrogance – in a good way – by taking the ball and playing our football.
“We need to find the key for this change because we deserved to lose. I don’t know if it is the mindset of the players. We need to change something. We need to find the mentality and tactics to win. We have to look as individuals and as a team to fix this.”
There is quite a lot to break down and sieve through in Pogba’s post-match quotes. He mentioned problems having been on-going “for a long time and [Solskjaer/the team?] haven’t found the problem …”, besides stressing the need for players to be more mature and even questions the mindset of the squad. And by talking about finding the “mentality and tactics” to win, he invariably threw all responsibility and blame at the feet of Solskjaer.
However, it is not just Pogba taking the abrupt U-turn. After the 1-1 draw at home to Everton earlier this month, Fernandes also delivered an exasperated assessment of United’s performances this season.
“We have to learn and the time is now,” the Portuguese said.
“We cannot do this anymore. We did it so many times, we cannot slow the game down when we’re winning.
“We have to make it quicker, score once again, get one or two more goals and after that, maybe you can slow it down and make them run a bit more.”
Neither Pogba nor Fernandes directed their comments openly at Solskjaer as to do so would have amounted to direct mutiny and directly challenging his authority, calling out their manager in such clear fashion. However, even by inferring via nuances, both players have already unmistakably compromised, and undermined, Solskjaer’s position as manager.
Of course, there are also those who are not enamored of the French midfielder who would not hesitate to liken his comments to the pot shamelessly calling the kettle black. To many, it will be regarded as a bold move by Pogba to demand improvement considering that he has consistently failed to play to his potential since returning to United from Juventus in a world-record transfer in 2016. Pogba has had five years to help drag the team to the heights he, and others, expect of the club, but he is one of those who Solskjaer could accuse of letting him down on more than one occasion.
Fernandes, on the other hand, has been loads more consistent as a performer since his arrival at Old Trafford from Sporting Lisbon in January 2020, although the Portugal midfielder has unmistakably lost his spark this season with his own performances having clearly dipped below the standard he has previously set.
But honest players, like honest managers, are a rare breed. Players, ex-players and coaches are usually more accustomed to speak of how players will always look for excuses elsewhere before pinning any element of blame on themselves. This is of course nothing new to managers, and many have had to deal with this for years and not only in football but in all other sporting activities, and recent seasons are littered with examples of some of the biggest names in management losing their jobs because world-class players have allowed their boss to shoulder the blame for poor results.
But even though sources at United have made it clear that Solskjaer’s position is not under threat and that the Norwegian knows he has the backing of the club’s owners, the Glazer family, the comments of Pogba and Fernandes show that the sands are now beginning to shift under his feet.
Regardless of who they blame for the problems that have seen United win just one of their last five games, exit the Carabao Cup at the first hurdle and drop to sixth in the Premier League table, Pogba and Fernandes have now admitted publicly that things aren’t right at Old Trafford and that the players aren’t in the least happy. Looks like a mutiny is stirring up, and not so quietly either.
It’s also clear that Solskjaer and his coaches need to urgently raise the bar and make the team better, which is of course easier said than done for the Norwegian and his staff now that Pogba and Fernandes have publicly exposed the cracks.
United face Atalanta and Liverpool in two crucial games at Old Trafford this week and a defeat in either will leave them facing an uphill battle to succeed in the Champions League or Premier League.
Solskjaer needs to have himself and his players do all the talking on the pitch rather than revert to the usual, smart-alec post-match analysis, making excuses and the like afterwards. He should be smart enough to know fully well this time that if the same old problems were to surface again, it would be only a matter of time when he’s finaly shown the exit while his players disavow any responsibility and culpability.