The games that killed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's reign at Man United

Hammered at home by Tottenham, embarrassed in Europe, his ‘darkest day’ against Liverpool – and the Watford defeat that ended it all… the games that killed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign at Manchester United

  • READ: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been sacked as Manchester United boss 
  • The Red Devils were thrashed 4-1 at Watford, which ultimately led to his exit 
  • It’s not the first time a Solskjaer team has suffered a morale-damaging defeat
  • Sportmail looks through the moments that hit Solskjaer hardest at Old Trafford 

For Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the writing had been on the wall for some time. At one point he was Manchester United’s saviour – the man who stabilised a club in freefall. 

Eventually his reign grew stale as a damning set of results hinted he was not the man to bring the glory days back to Old Trafford.

Finally sacked after growing calls from supporters to act in the wake of their humiliating 4-1 loss at Watford, Solskjaer’s time is finally up and will look back on several painful results that hammered the nails in his coffin, one by one.

From European heartbreak to morale-damaging thrashings and missed opportunities, the Norwegian’s reign might have initially brought a good feeling back to United, but ultimately criticism over his tactics, decision-making and discipline left the club crying out for new leadership.

Here, Sportsmail goes through the defining games that would prove Solskjaer’s return to Manchester United was bound to end in misery. 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will remember a handful of games that summed up the heartbreak of his time in charge of Manchester United

Chelsea – FA Cup semi-final, 2019-20, 3-1 defeat 

A dismal defeat, but at least one that Solskjaer wasn’t entirely to blame for.

The finger was mostly pointed at his goalkeeper David de Gea after two major howlers, allowing shots from Olivier Giroud and Mason Mount to squirm past him either side of half-time, with Harry Maguire slotting home at the Spaniard’s near post.

Bruno Fernandes reduced the deficit from the spot late on, but it was nothing more than a consolation. United may look back and wonder what could have been had De Gea been more switched on, but ultimately they were toothless in front of goal as Frank Lampard’s men outgunned them.

Solskjaer said the team would learn from the defeat and use it to build character, but those defining moments in big games would never arrive. 

Manchester United had David de Gea to blame for two howlers in the 3-1 FA Cup semi-final loss to Chelsea, but Solskjaer’s United were toothless in front of goal

Tottenham – Premier League, 2020-21, 6-1 defeat  

United could not have envisaged the pain they would be put through after Bruno Fernandes’ spot kick put them ahead with barely minutes on the clock at Old Trafford… this looked like yet another stroll in the park in the long history of this classic Premier League fixture.

But Solskjaer’s men were stunned by a quick two-goal blitz from Spurs as Tanguy Ndombele and Son Heung-min turned the game on its head, before Anthony Martial lost his head and lashed out at Erik Lamela, despite the Argentine appearing to provoke the Frenchman.

From there the house of cards came tumbling down. Harry Kane struck to make it three before Son’s second and then Serge Aurier rifled home with 40 minutes left to play. There was even time for a sixth as Kane slotted home his brace from the spot. 

Manchester United were trounced by Tottenham last season as Harry Kane and Son Heung-min both netted doubles to thrash them 6-1 at home

Solskjaer blamed a lack of fitness and preparation as his side struggled with ten men

It was a brutal defeat, one that exposed United’s frailties and lack of fitness – with Solskjaer insisting his side had not had a proper pre-season due to the Covid chaos. 

There were the usual ‘Ole Out’ calls, but this felt like more of a freak result than one that would lead to Solskjaer’s departure as his side bounced back and went on to finish second in the league. 

Istanbul Basaksehir – Champions League, 2020-21, 2-1 defeat 

After their Spurs hammering, United rebooted and managed to go on an unbeaten run in the league, but in Europe their flaws were exposed once more in a bitterly disappointing loss in Turkey.

And exposed badly. During a routine United attack, Baseksehir cleared their lines and found former Chelsea striker Demba Ba completely on his own in United’s half, with every defender committed forward.

Ba strolled towards a doomed Dean Henderson as Matic desperately tried to race back and put pressure on, but the former Senegal international calmly slotted home to put them 1-0 up. It was a baffling defensive set-up and left pundits scratching their heads over how United had let the opposition in behind so easily.

Solskjaer’s tactics left United badly exposed against Istanbul Baseksehir in the Champions League as Demba Ba was allowed through on goal following a swift counter attack

United’s defence was cut apart far too easily on the second goal too, as Edin Visca smashed home unrivalled after a pull back across the box

The second goal was another example of horrendous defending as Deniz Turuc raced down the left, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka absolutely nowhere to be seen and leaving veteran midfielder Juan Mata attempting a failed chase.

Turuc shrugged off the challenge and pulled it back for Ba, who flicked it behind for Edin Visca to smash into the roof of the net with United at sixes and sevens. Martial got one back minutes later but the team didn’t have enough to secure a point. 

That result was significant as they missed out on the Champions League knockouts by three points, with a loss to Leipzig resigning them to the Europa League.

Villarreal – Europa League final, 2020-21, 1-1 (11-10 on penalties) 

At least dropping down to Europe’s second tier tournament offered United a realistic opportunity to win a trophy, and they had cruised past Milan, Granada and Roma to reach the showpiece in Gdansk, Poland. They were comfortable favourites to lift their first trophy since 2016. 

United legend and pundit on the night Paul Scholes confidently predicted that Solskjaer’s team would walk all over the LaLiga outfit, and – like many United fans – he received a shock as Unai Emery’s well-drilled side put up one hell of a fight as Gerard Moreno prodded in the opener from a free kick.

Solskjaer’s United were favourites to win the Europa League against Villarreal but Unai Emery’s well drilled side were no pushovers as they won on penalties

The Norwegian will know it presented his best opportunity to win a trophy as United boss

Edinson Cavani was there to slot home from close range after a deflection, and neither side could find a winner as it went to extra team, with both sides looking exhausted and wanting to force penalties – which turned out to be a slog of a shootout. It looked like we might be watching all night as nearly every player dispatched their kicks… that was until David de Gea stepped up. 

Villarreal keeper Geronimo Rulli had just thumped in his own effort, and then immediately kept out De Gea’s to send his side into pandemonium. You felt for De Gea, although the Spaniard was singled out for failing to save one Villarreal penalty.

Ultimately, United failed to do the business on the night and were heavily criticised for failing to take advantage of a massive opportunity, having just two shots on target in the entire 120 minutes. Solskjaer’s best chance of a trophy went up in smoke.

Aston Villa – Premier League, 2021-22, 1-0 defeat 

The end of Ronaldo’s honeymoon period at United. 

The Portuguese superstar had netted four in his first three games since his sensational return to Old Trafford and was expected to continue that run against an unfancied Villa side, but Dean Smith’s men managed to nullify his threat throughout.

Villa kept things tight before stunning the United faithful with just minutes remaining as Kourtney Hause glanced home a header from a corner kick to help his side pull off a famous win, as Ronaldo stormed down the tunnel.

Cristiano Ronaldo was at centre stage after United’s defeat to Villa – his first since returning to Old Trafford – as he stormed down the tunnel having been benched by Solskjaer for the game

United’s season had revolved around Ronaldo up until this point, and the legendary forward still grabbed the headlines as he made his feelings perfectly clear, shaking his head and heading straight for the dressing room at the final whistle having been benched for the game and only introduced on 60 minutes.

He did the same when United were held 1-1 at home to Everton, capturing the feeling that Ronaldo was becoming a big problem for Solskjaer and overshadowing him as coach of this enormous football club. 

 Leicester City – 2021-22, Premier League – 4-2 defeat

It was all going so well after Mason Greenwood had smashed in a wonder strike to put the Red Devils 1-0 up at the King Power Stadium. Even after Harry Maguire had sloppily gifted possession just outside his own box to allow Youri Tielemans to scoop into the top corner, it wasn’t time for the panic stations just yet.

But it was the late capitulation that was particularly damning and arguably the moment many fans who supported Solskjaer or those who were on the fence were finally swayed that this relationship might not work out. 

A late salvo from Leicester City saw them net two late goals to shock United in a 4-2 triumph

United’s capitulation in the final ten minutes was damning and exposed their defensive flaws

Kaglar Soyuncu poked home from a corner after a game of pinball in the box with just over 10 minutes left, and Marcus Rashford’s quick reply from a counter attack briefly eradicated the despair of defending from that set-piece – before Jamie Vardy and Patson Daka killed United off.

United were as much spectators as their own fans in the away end for this one as Ayoze Perez carved out some space for himself on the left flank before simply squaring for Vardy to smash home.

In stoppage time, Leicester had time for another to add insult to injury as Daka bundled home from a free kick, even having time to let the ball bobble off his leg at the near post before prodding home. 

Liverpool – 2021-22, Premier League – 5-0 defeat

If Leicester was the game that turned the tide, this was the one that wiped him out.

The sea of fans leaving Old Trafford in their droves at half time, with United losing 4-0 at the break, said it all. Ever since Sir Alex Ferguson left the club in 2013, there has always come a time where fans finally lost patience with his replacement.

Under David Moyes it was a 3-0 home loss to Man City, for Mourinho it was his own damaging defeat to Liverpool. This was way worse for Solskjaer, as Jurgen Klopp’s Reds ran riot in a scintillating first half – with Naby Keita, Diogo Jota exposing United’s frailties to race into a 2-0 lead.

In one of United’s worst results in their history, Solskjaer’s men were thumped 5-0 at home to rivals Liverpool, who were four up by half time

Solskjaer called it his ‘darkest day’ as his team surrendered and totally fell apart at Old Trafford

Mohamed Salah pounced on further lapses in concentration to make Solskjaer’s half time team-talk almost pointless, before adding another after the interval.

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse for United, Paul Pogba was sent off for a two footer with half an hour yet to play. You feared the worst for the Red Devils, but they eventually found some sort of solidity to play for pride and stop the rot at five. 

After the game Solskjaer called it his ‘darkest day’. His words said he wasn’t giving up, but his body language was that of defeat. Incredibly, though, United’s hierarchy were ready to give him one more chance…

Watford – 2021-22, Premier League – 4-1 defeat

After the Liverpool defeat, United rallied to beat Tottenham and there was one last glimmer of hope for Solskjaer. A draw at Atalanta in the Champions League followed, and then a defeat in the Manchester derby against City was wholly expected.

What came next, though, was absolutely not. Watford was seen as the easiest fixture in United’s difficult spell through November and December. Moored in the bottom three, Claudio Ranieri’s side shouldn’t have caused Ronaldo and Co any problems.

Alas, plenty of problems were caused from start to finish, and it ended up becoming the straw that broke the camel’s back for the United hierarchy.

From the first whistle, United were under the cosh at Vicarage Road. Ismaila Sarr – a long-time Old Trafford target – missed an early penalty to let the Red Devils off the hook, but it didn’t take long before Josh King, and then Sarr himself, helped the home side into a 2-0 half-time lead.

Long-time Man United target Ismaila Sarr scored one of Watford’s four goals on Saturday

Solskjaer appeared to wave goodbye to the fans after the game, and it was indeed his final act

What United needed was a rocket from Solskjaer at half-time, and there was an unlikely saviour at the start of the second period when outcast Donny van de Beek pulled a goal back. Could this be the turning point?

Well, no… Harry Maguire then got sent off for two bookable offences, before Joao Pedro and Emmanuel Dennis added insult to injury to end the game 4-1 in favour of the relegation strugglers.

Solskjaer apologised to the fans, and appeared to wave goodbye… before being sacked the following day. 

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