Rio Ferdinand tells a good story about his first day at Manchester United in 2002. Having miscontrolled a ball fired at him deliberately hard by Roy Keane, a voice chirped up.
"Is this all you get for £30million these days?" asked Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
It is an interesting vignette because it points to a side of the current United manager that we haven’t often seen. Those who know him say that Solskjaer has always been a lot tougher than he looks. During these troubled times at Old Trafford, it is just as well.
If Solskjaer’s reign at United is not on life support ahead of tonight’s Premier League game with Arsenal at Old Trafford then it is certainly labouring.
The Norwegian continues to smile in that boyish way of his but his countenance cannot disguise the sheer grimness of United’s football. If ever Solskjaer has needed the capacity to approach his work with the same dead-eyed outlook with which he once approached goalscoring then it is probably now.
Solskjaer has suggested in the build-up to the game that his time as a player at United prepared him for the level of expectation. It was a nice line but isn’t really true.
Nothing can prepare a man for the load he is asked to carry when he becomes manager of this club and the longer United’s run of modest football goes on, the more it will become Solskjaer’s problem. It is the way football works.
"I’ve had loads of conversations with the board and the club and how we’re seeing this, moving forward," said Solskjaer when asked about his own future.
"Maybe for you (it’s interesting). For me, as I’ve said, I don’t worry too much about it." Arsenal have not won at Old Trafford in the league since September 2006 but if that were to change tonight then subsequent games at AZ Alkmaar in Europe and against Newcastle and Liverpool in the Premier League would start to look very important indeed.
United do not wish to sack Solskjaer and with good reason. The cycle of managerial change they have created since Sir Alex Ferguson stepped aside in 2013 has taken them nowhere and as such the long-term vision spoken about on the release of last week’s financial results continues to offer Solskjaer a security of sorts. Nevertheless, on the field United’s direction of travel is harming the Norwegian and his prospects.
On Friday, he spoke of improvement in his team but during recent games it has been hard to see any. It is this trend that stalks him.
The statistics since Solskjaer was given the job permanently in March are damning enough. Five wins in 18 games and just 17 goals. Equally, the change in the nature of his team’s football since those heady unbeaten days of caretakership has been just as startling.
United ran hot on the back of some timely fortune once Jose Mourinho made way for Solskjaer last winter. How United won at Tottenham in Solskjaer’s early days, for example, perhaps only goalkeeper David de Gea can tell us.
But back then United at least played with a purpose, an energy and a tempo. Freed from the shackles of Mourinho’s professional and personal misery, Solskjaer’s players responded vibrantly.
That freedom and those rhythms have gone now. In the summer, Solskjaer attributed his players’ tapering form last season to a lack of fitness. At the time, it sounded hollow and it certainly looks that way now. United were effective on the counter as they beat a coltish Chelsea 4-0 on opening day but that scoreline flattered them and they have been on the slide ever since.
Their football last week in losing at West Ham was moribund and it was again in the narrow squeak in the Carabao Cup against Rochdale three days later. It is evidence that stacks up against Solskjaer.
"We know we need to pick our level back up. that’s the main thing. We look forward to improving tonight.
"The atmosphere in Old Trafford will be bouncing. It will spur us on to get a good result."
A dose of #MondayMotivation from @HarryMaguire93 ahead of #MUNARS 🗣️ pic.twitter.com/uF7f8T5SUB
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) September 30, 2019
"My job is to lead the players, guide them and tell them that we trust them because they’re here because they’re good players," Solskjaer said. "But I’m sure they can handle it. They’re getting more and more robust.
"The group, the culture, is improving. We can reset quicker than we did last year I think." If Solskjaer’s intention is to suggest that results don’t tell you everything about the health of a squad then he deserves some leeway. From the outside, we don’t get to see everything. United do have injuries, too. Tonight they will be without Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw and maybe Paul Pogba.
But if they are to be convinced that Solskjaer and the club’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward do know what they are doing, United’s supporters will have to see a reversal of trends on the field very soon.
"I’m not doubting myself, no," said Solskjaer. "If I doubt myself then I think the rest of the world would as well."
Tonight’s opponents could be more daunting. This is a big game fixture only in name these days and a flakiness that underpins much of what Unai Emery is trying to do at Arsenal could present United with an opportunity to boost their points tally.
It was against Arsenal in London last March that United’s 12-game unbeaten league run under Solskjaer came to an end. Despite a 2-0 defeat, United actually played quite well that day. They haven’t often done so since.