This was the moment when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s credit at Manchester United finally ran out; so, the only question is how much longer can it be before the Bank of Old Trafford pulls the plug on his account?
The likeable, affable Norwegian was never going to be a short-term appointment – he knew he had far too much currency with the Stretford End to be sacked early, not just from the contribution he made to the club’s glory days as a player but for his clear understanding of the United way and what it should mean to pull on the shirt.
But as deep as that pot was, just about every last penny has now disappeared into the ether following a humiliating five-goal defeat against Liverpool that ended talk that United can come anywhere near a title tilt this season, despite the millions spent in the summer.
There can be no excuses. This performance did not come a few months into a new regime, it came almost three years since Solskjaer was appointed, during which he has been heavily supported in the market.
This was the moment when the United manager, who has been in the post since December 2018, could be truly judged. And, let’s be honest, he will be judged very, very badly.
A successful year of recruitment, covering two transfer windows, had left him with a team he could call his own: one full of exciting attacking talent, creative midfielders and a defence that on paper includes some of the best defenders in the country. But it was a team ripped ruthlessly apart by old foes Liverpool in one of the most painful evenings United fans have ever suffered (and that includes some pretty depressing batterings by the noisy neighbours).
No wonder they booed as the McFred midfield was pierced time and time again, no wonder pundits on every television channel entered into a heated debate on Solskjaer’s future as the defence flustered from one disaster to another and Cristiano Ronaldo sulked at the other end of the field. No wonder bookmakers rushed to reduce the odds on him becoming the next Premier League manager to be sacked — and speculated on who could replace him.
United legend Gary Neville described the performance and result as ‘sobering’ and warned that his friend Solskjaer was in for ‘an absolute battering’ – and you can be sure others, without such personal ties to the caoch, will be far more brutal. Solskjear need only look across at Steve Bruce’s demise at Newcastle to know that being a nice guy who cares about the club cannot save you from either abuse or the sack, and normally one follows the other.
It’s not the first time he has been through such trauma, of course, and Solskjaer has been adept at recovering the team from other disasters to build long unbeaten runs, victories which topped up his credit just when it was really needed and convinced the Old Trafford board he remains the right man from the job.
Could it happen again? Well, it’s still possible — the Norwegian has a team so packed full of talent that of course it is capable of bouncing back against lesser teams, and United have been extremely reluctant to pull the trigger on a club legend, especially when there have been signs of progress.
But it’s hard to get away from the nagging feeling that this time it feels different. This humiliation was against Liverpool. The auld enemy, the club that Sir Alex Ferguson worked so hard to ‘knock off their perch’, the bitter rivals that remain, in the eyes of United fans, even more hated than those in sky blue.
Can Solskjaer, however well-loved he may be by the United fan base, really survive? Especially after teasing the Old Trafford crowd with some vibrant early performances this season which promised much more. It is, after all, the hope that really kills you in football.
If you think back to previous horrors, the 6-1 humiliation by City in 2011 for instance, circumstances were very different. United were reigning champions at the time, Alex Ferguson was still in charge and there was an expectation of further titles to come.
This, however, is a result which threatens to unpick three years of hard work to bring United back to a level where they could actually challenge at the top again. So much money has been spent, so much trust invested, that the sight of Solskjaer’s team being drubbed on home soil, with hat-trick hero Mo Salah imperious, is deeply uncomfortable.
He was let down by the same players who have let him down on so many occasions before — which won't do him any favours when the next board meeting is called.
Paul Pogba’s terrible second-half challenge on Naby Keita, which earned him a deserved red card, rather summed it up. The United talisman, so often supported by Solskjaer, had only arrived on the pitch in the second half — not trusted to start against Liverpool’s combative midfield — and he again belied his undoubted talent to show why he will never be the answer, no matter who is in charge at Old Trafford.
Just a week ago, remember, Pogba had openly questioned Solskjaer’s tactics by insisting ‘something has to change’ following a 4-2 defeat at Leicester, so why he has stuck around so long is a mystery. But the sad conclusion is that if something does change in the coming weeks it won’t be the Frenchman but his coach.
Sources inside Old Trafford still express loyalty for their manager, who has been mentored by Ferguson himself, and there are still some plausible and credible reasons to keep him.
But when the credit runs out, for most people, there is a big price to pay.