Amidst all the noise, all the analysis, all the Roy Keane death-stares after Manchester United’s defeat to Liverpool on Sunday, there was one voice that got a little lost in the furore. Yet, as United fans reflect on their second chastening experience against bitter rivals in as many weeks, it may not be a terrible idea for them to reflect on what Jürgen Klopp said after that match. For, unexpectedly, it was the Liverpool manager who had the warmest words for Ole Gunnar Solskjær.
“I am full of admiration for the work Ole is doing, this season in particular, given what he has to juggle,” Klopp said. “As a fellow manager, it is easy to see the progress they make, although others on the outside are not so quick to recognise.”
Solskjær could have been forgiven for welling up when he heard this, in the way one feels a lump rising in their throat when asked if they are okay when they’re anything but. For there are fewer and fewer coming to the Norwegian’s defence these days, be they pundit, journalist or – most worryingly for Solskjær – fan.
There is a deepening divide between United fans who believe in Solskjær and his vision and those who don’t. The former take Klopp’s summation at face-value, for they feel, as he claims to do, that there are enough green shoots of progress, amidst the tangled wilderness that has been allowed to flourish and fester during the six years preceding Solskjær’s appointment as interim manager, on which to cling. Those who have already decided that he is failing, however, see Klopp’s words as little more than pity for his struggling counterpart, akin to a millionaire throwing a homeless man sitting outside a hotel a few scraps on his way to his penthouse.
Some even claim that Klopp is deliberately sending United’s board a sly message in the hope that they stick with this bumbling novice, who has as much hope of returning United to the top of English football as Sean Dyche does of seeing his Burnley team, who United face this evening, crowned European champions.
Football managers work in mysterious ways and Solskjær’s mentor, Sir Alex Ferguson, was the master of the mind-game, yet Klopp hardly seems the type to believe those pulling the strings at Old Trafford will be hanging on his every word in search of clues for what to do next – “I am full of admiration for the work Ole is doing,” Klopp cackled, as he stroked his cat menacingly.
It seems much more likely that Klopp sees, in Solskjær’s current predicament, something of his own struggles upon arriving at Anfield five years ago. For he, like Solskjær, inherited a mess. He, too, found a club living on its history, squandering money, lacking identity and languishing in limbo. He also recognised immediately that it was no good arriving at his first press-conference and waxing lyrical about how he would be able to wave a magic wand and guide the rabble he had been bequeathed to glory within a few months.
Instead, he managed expectations, preached the need for patience and went about systematically cutting out any canker that had crept into any crevice of the club. Gradually, he instilled belief back into Liverpool’s fanbase. It took time, with a few disappointments along the way, but time was the one thing he knew he had, having made clear from day one that he was not offering a quick-fix. It helped that his CV was so impressive of course. But it also helped that his club’s fanbase was weary, weighed down by so many years in the shadows, so many near-misses, so many corners turned and dead-ends met, and so many managers who had come, seen and failed to conquer.
United fans have watched their club decline at such a dizzying rate that they have barely had time to comprehend it, let alone get used to it. Indeed, many will only have known success by the time Ferguson retired. For such fans, it must seem like the club has a divine right to win major trophies year upon year.
But it doesn’t work like that. Football is an ever-evolving game and United, through no fault of Solskjær’s, have been left behind. It’s true that, given their wage-bill and the money spent on players over the last six years, they should not be scratching around in the chase for a top-four finish, thirty points behind the league leaders and losing to such lowly opponents as Watford. But they are, and they probably will be for a while yet.
Such truths may not be palatable to those reeling from such a rapid descent but, like a man who has fallen from a cliff and survived, it’s probably better to survey the area and seek out the surest path back to the summit, even if it’s the slowest, than to start scrambling back up the very rock-face down which he just fell.
Solskjær is the first manager since Ferguson retired to actually recognise the scale of the task at hand and speak honestly about the time needed to fix it. He, and the furious Keane, have been accused of accepting mediocrity, as have any fans who still support Solskjær. The Norwegian spoke of how his players had taken ‘strides forward’ after their defeat to Liverpool, comments pounced upon by angry fans who see this as the talk of a manager happy to languish in mid-table. It isn’t. It’s simply a candid assessment of United’s current status; a decent first-team that has shown it can go toe-to-toe with the best this country has to offer, with a second-string that can’t and hopeless owners who are only in it for themselves.
It wasn’t too long ago that Klopp was leading his Liverpool players in what seemed, then, a rather embarrassing celebration after coming back to draw with West Bromwich Albion at Anfield. He was mocked, taunted, accused of demeaning the history of a club of Liverpool’s stature in celebrating such a humble achievement. But who’s laughing now?
Solskjær doesn’t have the luxury, unlike Klopp when he walked into Anfield, of a well-formed structure above him, well-informed people around him, and a clear path ahead of him. The Glazers and Ed Woodward have seen to that. Presumably, these, as well as a worsening injury list including key players, and a fanbase that is livid with the Glazer ownership and their reluctance to spend any more money, are the things Klopp feels Solskjær is having to ‘juggle.’
What he does have is an emerging young team that, with a few astute additions, could blossom into something special.
It’s easy for Klopp to be gracious in victory, but he knows from experience the difficulties of an uphill battle. Whether Solskjær is given the helping hand he so desperately needs from his employers, or is made a scapegoat by them in a bid to divert attention, once again, from their own failings, and sent crashing back to the floor and out of the door, only time will tell.
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