MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) – Manchester United’s reluctant decision to sack manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on Sunday left them in limbo but with the Norwegian gone the spotlight will once again turn to the club’s ownership and senior leadership.
In the eight years since United’s last Premier League title under Alex Ferguson in 2013, David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho, all experienced and respected managers, failed to make the team even close to being genuine title contenders.
Former Ferguson player Solskjaer did manage to change the mood around the club for a large part of his three years in charge and made a series of improvements at various levels including the academy.
But the disastrous slump in form this season left him looking a forlorn figure unable to halt a series of dreadful performances and shocking results, culminating in Saturday’s 4-1 defeat by lowly Watford.
More than a quarter of Premier League clubs have changed managers this season but unlike teams such as Tottenham, who swiftly replaced Nuno Espirito Santo with Antonio Conte or Aston Villa who swapped Dean Smith for Steven Gerrard, United have no plan in place for Solskjaer’s successor.
Indeed, the lack of forward planning left the club in the bizarre situation of making one of Solskjaer’s coaching staff, Michael Carrick, a de facto “pre-interim” manager.
United said in a statement that former player Carrick will “now take charge of the team for forthcoming games, while the club looks to appoint an interim Manager to the end of the season”.
That status for Carrick not only suggests a lack of confidence in his ability but also indicates that United have no clear idea of who they want to take charge in the long term.
Carrick is likely to lean heavily on the most experienced member of the coaching staff, Mike Phelan, who was assistant to Ferguson and is the only member of the staff with experience of being in charge of a Premier League team.
But for the longer term, there is no obvious candidate for the permanent position currently out of work. Although bookmakers have installed former Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane as favourite, there is no consensus that the former France player, who speaks little English, would be the right solution or any indication that he would even want the job.
United could attempt to poach a manager from another club but their desire for a short-term appointment indicates they do not plan such an approach now.
In most top clubs, the search for a manager would be the responsibility of a Director of Football, or senior leadership figures such as Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain at Manchester City.
But at United the structure, and individual roles and responsibilities within it, is far from clear with executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward heading out of the club, John Murtough the director of football and Darren Fletcher the technical director who also helps out on the training ground.
Co-chairman Joel Glazer would also be expected to sign off on any appointment and there are other figures in the club, such as managing director Richard Arnold, who might expect to be involved.
The Florida-based Glazer family have owned United since 2005 and have faced fan opposition from the moment they completed their takeover and the leading role they played in the failed attempt to launch the European Super League.
The late Malcolm Glazer, the family patriarch who made his fortune in real estate and stocks, bought United in May 2005 for 790 million pounds ($1.09 billion), after entering the sports business in 1995 with a takeover of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Since his death in 2014, his two sons Joel and Avram have been co-chairmen of United with the former playing a prominent part in the recent Super League controversy — he was named the short-lived breakaway’s founding vice-chairman.
United fans have been reluctant to vent their frustration against Solskjaer, a Champions League winner and popular player with an amiable personality, but they have no such reservations when it comes to Woodward and the Glazers.
United are badly in need of clear direction — on and off the field — but the fact that they are now searching for a short-term fix till the end of the season will do little to inspire confidence that a defined strategy is in place.
(Reporting by Simon Evans, Editing by Ed Osmond)