There has tended to be a trigger for Manchester United sacking managers since the days of Sir Alex Ferguson and it has come when the Champions League is either out of sight or becoming increasingly difficult to attain.
The expectations should have shifted under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer this season, but while seeing a title challenge collapse by the first week of November is hugely disappointing, missing out on the top four would be catastrophic.
United have secured the riches on offer with Champions League football for successive seasons under Solskjaer, the first that’s been achieved since Ferguson left in 2013, and the business plan of the Glazers is built around the riches that a seat at Europe’s top table brings.
Miss out on that and what seems like excessive patience with a manager will quickly turn into a rush to get the P45 drawn up. United aren’t at the stage where the Champions League places are becoming problematic this season – and the campaign is still less than a third old – but it’s entirely possible they will find themselves on the back foot by Christmas.
At the start of this season, United were improving under Solskjaer and were toasting a superb transfer window that saw Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane join the club, before Cristiano Ronaldo’s show-stopping return to Old Trafford. They were grouped with Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool as potential title challengers.
By contrast, Arsenal began the season as a laughing stock under Mikel Arteta, a club who looked just as likely to finish in the bottom half as the top four, while Tottenham only just held on to their star striker and appointed a manager they’d ruled out six weeks earlier.
Three months can be an eternity in football, however, as an increasingly under-pressure Solskjaer is finding out. Suddenly United are the odd ones out when it comes to the big six in the Premier League.
Under Thomas Tuchel, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, Chelsea, City and Liverpool already had their ducks in a row. But Arsenal’s renaissance under Arteta has been striking and they now sit three points ahead of United in the Premier League table, with a young side that is starting to look like it’s shaped in the image of its manager.
And while Nuno was clearly the wrong appointment for Tottenham, Antonio Conte could certainly be Mr. Right. His appointment is a significant coup for Spurs, who are a point behind United but would be confident of overturning that under the serially successful Italian.
In Tuchel, Guardiola, Klopp, Arteta and Conte, five of the big six have a manager in charge that they are almost certain to go into next season with. Chelsea, City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham will all feel they have long-term plans under their current bosses.
The same can’t be said of United. The decision to hand a three-year deal to Solskjaer in the summer looks misguided now and the disastrous way that this season has fallen apart has left the Norwegian on the brink.
If there was a suitable candidate available and ready to come in, the 48-year-old would already have been sacked. Instead, he flew back to Norway to recharge the batteries on Monday and is still expecting to take charge of the team at Watford when the season resumes after the international break.
If United’s rivals are sitting contently with a sign of stability in the dugout, then Solskjaer is basically a sitting duck at the moment. Nobody really expects him to last the season and if a viable alternative becomes available he might not last the month.
That puts the club on uncertain ground. At the moment they are three points short of the top four and this squad is clearly good enough to make up that deficit. But if Arsenal’s revival under Arteta continues to gather pace and Conte quickly gets a tune out of Tottenham then the situation could become more serious.
Solskjaer is clearly no longer the right man for United. The fact that their big six rivals do have a manager they’ve got faith in it should be forcing Ed Woodward and Joel Glazer to act.