On Wednesday, his side tore RB Leipzig apart in the Champions League. Under young coach Julian Nagelsmann, arguably the hottest commodity on the managerial market, the German side is widely considered one of Europe’s most exciting and attacking teams.
But United’s midfield and attacking line carved the opposition defense — featuring Dayot Upamecano, one of Europe’s most sought after defenders — open time after time, eventually firing five goals past its beleaguered opponent.
Fast forward to Sunday’s insipid 1-0 defeat against Arsenal and United wasn’t just a shadow of the side that beat Leipzig, it looked like a completely different side altogether.
It was Paul Pogba who gave away the crucial penalty that decided the game, with the French midfielder himself admitting it was a “stupid mistake.”
“I’m in the box and I should not give a penalty away like that,” Pogba told the BBC after the match. “Just let him take the ball and try to block the cross. Maybe I was a bit out of breath because I was running just before and that made me make this stupid mistake.
“I guess they are details. Details made us lose the game today and for sure I’ll learn from that. I’m not the best defensively in the box and I have to work on this. We can always improve. I can always improve and do better.”
Pogba’s last two performances have mirrored those of United as a whole; brilliant against Leipzig, then painfully ineffective against Arsenal.
The club has arguably struggled to get the best out of a player who is unquestionably one of the world’s most gifted midfielders, someone who excels when playing for France and who lit up the European stage when playing for Juventus.
A World Cup winner, Pogba has seemingly become the club’s scapegoat for fans and pundits alike, but United’s problems run far deeper than just one individual player.
In Solskjaer, United has a manager who in Europe has masterminded two spectcular wins against Paris Saint-Germain but has been unable to deliver the required level of consistency in the Premier League; in the Glazer family it has an owner that has racked up eye-watering amounts of debt; and in Ed Woodward it has a chief executive that has spent vast sums of money in a playing squad that remains light years behind its rivals.
According to European football’s governing body UEFA, in a 2018 report, United had the highest wage bill in the EPL and the fourth-highest in Europe, while also having the second-most expensively assembled team on the continent.
Harry Maguire is the world’s most expensive defender, but is not regarded as the world’s best in his position. Romelu Lukaku was bought for around £75 million ($97 million) but is now playing for Inter Milan, as is Alexis Sanchez, a striker who arrived at Old Trafford to much fanfare but departed having scored five goals in 45 appearances.
Former United great Roy Keane is of the view that Solskjaer will ultimately pay the price for the team’s form during his time in charge, which has seen the Norwegian record the worst league win percentage — 49.2% — of any United manager over the past 35 years.
“I am really, really worried about Manchester United now,” Keane said on Sky Sports. “Where do you want me to start? A lack of energy, of enthusiasm, and a real lack of quality. That really concerned me. No quality, no composure.
“Some of the performances were really poor. Have they turned a corner? It’s the longest corner ever. I am just not convinced by these players.
“I don’t see any leaders out there. There’s a real lack of quality. There’s a long way back for this club.”
Without a win in the Premier League so far this season, United has lost as many games at Old Trafford as it did during the two seasons Jose Mourinho was in charge.
But Solskjaer’s reign has been more curious than most. Just when it looks as though his job is on the line and the team has stopped playing for him, his players will turn in the kind of performances they did against Newcastle, PSG and Leipzig.
“I think there’s been ups and downs for Ole,” added former United captain Keane on Sky Sports. “Last year, you’re thinking they finished the season strongly, three semifinals — but three semifinals for Manchester United is not good enough — and we kind of were building this season up to be almost make or break for Ole.
“And at this moment in time it’s not looking good for him. They spoke about the game during the week, the Champions League is sometimes chalk and cheese compared to what a Premier League challenge brings to you.
“So the fact that players don’t turn up today and don’t have a go until the end … the race is almost over, they’ll have that now with this league campaign. I never thought for one minute they’d be challenging Liverpool or Manchester City, but the way they’ve started the top four seems even out of reach.
“Sometimes you say: ‘Well, there’s no need to panic,’ but the results and the performances suggest you should be panicking because it’s not been good enough.”
After Sunday’s defeat to Arsenal, United sits in a lowly 15th place in the Premier League with just two wins from its opening six matches. Where once Old Trafford used to be an intimidating fortress, it now provides any team struggling for points the welcome opportunity to walk away with a positive result.
United is without a win at home so far this season — including that humiliating 6-1 defeat to Tottenham — and sits 18th in the home form table above only Burnley and Fulham.
But while Solskjaer should unquestionably be getting more out of this squad, the man who may eventually take his place is likely to encounter all of the same problems.
Since Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Mourinho and Solskjaer have all failed to take United back to the top of English football and it seems unlikely that the next name in line would succeed where they have failed if all the other variables remain the same.