Manchester – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has survived to face Tottenham on Saturday despite incessant speculation over his future at Manchester United following their humiliating 5-0 drubbing by Liverpool.
But away from the issue of the manager’s job, pride is at stake for United’s expensive collection of world-class talents, who are under pressure to respond to stinging criticism over recent weeks.
A club-record victory for Liverpool at Old Trafford was a new low during Solskjaer’s nearly three years in charge, but continued a worrying trend for the Red Devils.
United have taken just one point from the past 12 on offer in the Premier League to fall eight points off leaders Chelsea after just nine games.
The expected challenge for a first league title since 2013 already looks over, with Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City in menacing form.
United’s first priority is to ensure they do not become detached from the battle for a top-four finish.
Failure to qualify for the Champions League has been the death knell for previous United managers in recent years, as David Moyes and Louis van Gaal know to their cost.
United thought those days were behind them when they spent more than £130 million ($180 million) on Cristiano Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane to bolster a squad that finished second in the Premier League last season.
Despite scoring six goals in nine games, Ronaldo’s presence has undoubtedly had a destabilising impact, with the lack of Edinson Cavani’s industry noticeable in a dreadful defensive record.
After 11 games without a goal or assist, Sancho failed even to get off the bench against Liverpool, while Varane has been badly missed since picking up a groin injury.
Even some of Solskjaer’s most trusted lieutenants have failed him in recent weeks.
Captain Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw have publicly apologised for their dramatic loss of form since starring in England’s run to the final of Euro 2020.
“I think it’s ourselves that we need to look at, first and foremost, in the mirror,” said Shaw. “Are we doing everything right and preparing right for the games in ourselves?
“Of course we have the tactics and how the manager wants us to play, but I think at times we’re way too easy to play against.”
Solskjaer has struggled to strike the right balance all season, even as his attacking arsenal papered over the cracks in the early weeks of the campaign.
The dropping of Paul Pogba to accomodate Fred and Scott McTominay in central midfield has failed to stem the flow of goals conceded, with United keeping just one clean sheet in 21 games.
Pogba is suspended for the trip to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium after lasting just 15 minutes against Liverpool as a second-half substitute before being sent off for a wild lunge on Naby Keita.
According to reports, there is unrest in the dressing room over Solskjaer’s consistent overlooking of players such as Jesse Lingard and Donny van de Beek despite the below-par performances.
Varane’s return to training this week could see the Frenchman thrown straight back in, but that tactic backfired at Leicester a fortnight ago when a rusty Maguire was rushed back from injury and looked well off the pace.
The biggest call for Solskjaer is up front. Dropping Ronaldo would be a risky business as criticism from former boss Alex Ferguson of his decision to rest the five-time Ballon d’Or winner last month against Everton showed.
However, with time rapidly running out for him to turn things around, Solskjaer needs to trust his convictions on what it will take to get results, even if it means bruising a few egos.