WATFORD, England — On Friday, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer spent his usual pregame news conference talking, via video, about how well his Manchester United players trained during the international break and his belief that the problems they have faced in recent weeks have been ironed out.
A game against Watford, newly promoted to the Premier League and a team that does not score many and concedes plenty, should have been the perfect time to put all that hard work into practice. Instead, United served up another catastrophic performance and lost 4-1; their seventh defeat in 13 games and a fifth in seven.
It has become a regular theme for United fans to ask what exactly is done in training, and it remains a mystery after they witnessed the actions that followed Solskjaer’s positive talk, but it is difficult to see how the Norwegian survives this humbling.
Watford fans sang “Ole’s at the wheel” at the end, but it might not be the case for much longer. Even after humiliation at the hands of Liverpool and Manchester City, the United board was keen for Solskjaer to make it to the end of the season, but the campaign is in danger of total implosion.
Usually, the risk of losing out on Champions League money makes the Glazers act with regard to managers, and United will not finish in the top four playing like this. Indeed, if it goes on much longer, the club will be lucky to finish in the top 10.
At the final whistle, Solskjaer went over to the away fans at the end and was greeted by scattered boos by the supporters who stayed until the end. It riled Bruno Fernandes, who seemed to gesture toward the whole team as if to say “blame us” and was eventually dragged away by Fred.
Harry Maguire was already in the dressing room, sent off for two yellow cards in a seven-minute period in the second half that made his cupped-ear celebration for England seem even more ill-judged. Cristiano Ronaldo was not far behind the United captain at the end of the game, further signs that this is not so much a club falling apart, but one already smashed to bits.
Inevitably, the first question in Solskjaer’s postgame news conference was whether he believes he’s still the right man for the job. He was defiant — “I always have belief in myself. Of course, at the moment it’s a difficult time for us. I believe we can turn this around” — but the question is: Can he?
Just over 24 hours after saying he had prioritised defensive stability for opponents, who had not scored in seven of their 11 league games this season and who had not won at home since opening day, Solskjaer watched as Watford went 2-0 up by half-time and kicked themselves that it wasn’t more.
Josh King got the first midway through the first half and Ismaila Sarr the second just before the break, but that did not do justice to the horror show that United, who have just two clean sheets in 25 games, had managed to produce.
With the game goalless, Sarr had the same penalty saved twice by David De Gea after VAR ordered a retake because of encroachment into the penalty area, while Nemanja Matic gifted Emmanuel Dennis a chance and King should have scored with a point-blank header.
It was telling that, when the second goal went in, United’s players trudged to the halfway line. There was no talking, arguing or even eye contact. Not so much as a token clap or an encouraging “come on,” just a sullen march, as if more punishment was inevitable. That it did not arrive was thanks only to referee Jon Moss’ half-time whistle.
Donny van de Beek, on as a substitute at the break along with Anthony Martial, tried to put up some kind of resistance with a goal to make it 2-1, then laid on a chance for Ronaldo, but it turned out to be the only 10 minutes in the game when United were on top. Watford were comfortable against 10 men and added to their lead in stoppage time through Joao Pedro and Dennis.
If anything, Van de Beek’s cameo only served to reinforce belief that the Dutch international should have been playing a long time ago. United fans in the corner of Vicarage Road began singing his name after 10 minutes, almost a mini protest against the manager when outright revolt against a club legend is not an option.
“I understand fans who follow the club through thick and thin; they’ve been fantastic the last few years,” Solskjaer said. “It’s a difficult period; we’ve had a hard time since Sir Alex [Ferguson] left and fans who’ve been with us have been unbelievable.
“Being second [last season] we hoped to kick on and at the moment we can’t seem to find our form,” United’s manager added. “I understand, that’s their right to show their opinion. I need to get the players to perform better; that’s my responsibility, that’s the biggest thing now. The whole afternoon was so disappointing and far away from our standards.”
Hours after United’s humiliation ended on the pitch, it continued at Anfield, where Liverpool and Arsenal fans sang in union for Solskjaer to stay. While United are stuck in limbo, their rivals are leaving them behind, laughing as they do so.