Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is not so much trapped between a rock and a hard place, but caught between two different projects.
And Manchester United’s 2-0 home defeat to fierce rivals Manchester City is testament to the awkward position he has now found himself in.
Only Pep Guardiola’s side’s poor finishing prevented another Old Trafford pulverising for Solskjaer. But as they did against Liverpool, the beleaguered Reds once again took to the field like a team unaware of what stage they were in.
Not even Cristiano Ronaldo, United’s constant saviour, could find a way through despite his impressive first half effort – any suggestions of the Portuguese being responsible for the descent should be received with nothing less than a wry smile and nod.
United’s season would be as good as finished were it not for the former Real Madrid and Juventus man’s incredible knack of finding the net when United need him most. However, his mere presence demands success and attacking guile appropriate for a player with five Ballon d’Ors.
Before he returned, Solskjaer deployed his team for the 5-1 victory against Leeds United with Mason Greenwood at the spearhead, while Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba, and Dan James supplied the youngster. Jadon Sancho dipped his toe into the treacherous waters of Old Trafford for the first time, as James, who eventually moved to the very team United thrashed on that very day, was substituted in the second half.
James was nothing more than a place holder for Sancho, while Marcus Rashford would eventually return to the left flank so Pogba can revert back to his favoured central midfield position.
At least that appeared to be the plan as Solskjaer had the wheels moving in a very promising motion. However, the surprise arrival of Ronaldo accelerated the plan at a rate very few managers could control.
Greenwood, Sancho, and to a point, Rashford are still developing and perfecting their games. They are, ironically, in a very similar stage to Ronaldo when Solskjaer was a team mate rather than a manager.
Unfortunately, his presence demands the immediate erection of a golden palace even if the foundations Solskjaer was moulding were not yet ready. At 37-years-old there is no long-term project for Ronaldo, despite his ambitions to play into his forties.
And with the clock surely ticking down on Ronaldo’s brilliance, Solskjaer has had to deploy his team with the same dominating intent as Klopp and Guardiola. The Liverpool and City managers are able to demand scintillating, dominating football as their machines are well oiled and worthy of the title race.
But, Solskjaer does not appear to believe his team are capable, as their reversion to a three man defence in the victory away to Tottenham and the defeat to Manchester City demonstrated.
He immediately turned to the experience within his arsenal, as he partnered Edison Cavani alongside Ronaldo, and both players spearheaded the side to a 3-0 win over Spurs.
But Cavani’s deal expired next season, and having seen his starting opportunities taken alongside his No.7 shirt by Ronaldo, Solskjaer will ideally need Greenwood to step up as the long term striker.
Solskjaer partnered him with Ronaldo against City, but the youngster could not compete with the physicality of Ruben Dias and the clever reading of John Stones.
However, don’t forget, this was the season everything was supposed to come together, but it has recently started to fall apart.
Solskjaer may need to dip into the transfer market to find players who can immediately compliment Ronaldo and empower the individuals like Greenwood and Sancho.
It could be the central midfielder United supporters are desperate for, but it may also be another striking partner to bounce off Ronaldo and create space for the wingers. Unfortunately, Solskjaer still seems to be deciding what this team will look and play like.
He deployed a three at the back system to try and close their defensive floodgates, but immediately flew them open when chasing a goal by swapping Sancho for Eric Bailly.
Solskjaer needs to decide what project and what stage his United team are at fast, otherwise not even Ronaldo will be able to save them.