The game appears to be up for Cardiff City. After a spirit-crushing home defeat to Crystal Palace last weekend, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer spoke of a ‘miracle’ being the club’s only chance of survival. Now 6 points short of safety, anything short of victory at Southampton on Saturday could spell the end of a disastrous first season for the Norwegian. The questions will then be whether the trigger-happy Vincent Tan will trust Solskjaer to take the reigns for another year.
Solskjaer’s desperately poor record in his short tenure in Wales coupled with his owner’s nature makes it very difficult to predict with any certainty that the Norwegian will be given another season, barring the miracle he seeks. The defeat at Palace was utterly bereft of the fighting spirit which produced the last-gasp equalizer against West Brom the previous week and Solskjaer himself looks like a thoroughly defeated man.
Solskjaer arrived with the charm and affability that made him so beloved at Manchester United, but with questionable managerial pedigree. When he turned down the vacant position at Aston Villa in 2012 for family reasons, it gave the impression of a man content to work his way progressively upwards through the footballing hierarchy, unwilling to jump from the Norwegian Tippeligaen straight into the shark tank of the Premier League. It may have come as a surprise to some, then, when he decided that Cardiff was a challenge he’d like to take on.
For those who saw Solskjaer as a pragmatic man willing to bide his time for the right club, Cardiff seemed like an odd choice, still reeling from the Malkie Mackay debacle and in the grip of an unpredictable maverick owner. But Solskjaer was the perennial super-sub and game-changer at United, famous for observing opposition defences from the bench and then picking apart their weaknesses. The gamble for Cardiff City was that this eye for detail could be translated into managerial acumen and a quick turnaround.
So take it on he did – for a reported £4 million salary. It is this wage that may reduce the sympathy that his character seems to naturally generate should Vincent Tan pull the trigger in the summer. It is difficult to shake the suspicion that Solskjaer, despite his charm and warmth, was tempted by the enormous amount that Tan was offering and now finds himself out of his depth.
Like David Moyes, Solskjaer appears to have aged considerably in a few short months, experiencing his first real taste of prolonged hardship as both player or manager. With Molde, Solskjaer won the Norwegian title at the first and second time of asking; in his third season a poor start saw Molde take only 7 points from their first eleven matches. They recovered to finish sixth, but its difficult to avoid the sense that Solskjaer is now in a situation he does not recognise.
Away from the salary, the questions of experience and the megalomaniacal chairman, the bread and butter is that Cardiff have been dreadful in recent weeks. The numbers make ugly reading for Solskjaer: he has won just two of his first 13 matches in charge, conceding 20 goals in seven games. Defensively, he has been unable to replicate that super-sub eye for detail. Confidence among his players appears to be an extreme low judging by the alarming manner in which they capitulated after Jason Puncheon’s first goal after 15 minutes. After the defeat Solskjaer was drawn into hinting at a split in the Cardiff dressing room, with Mackay loyalists in one camp and the Norwegian’s new signings in the other.
Solskjaer’s constant formation changes will have difficult for his players and his personnel decisions are also open to question. Craig Bellamy, a fire-breathing Welshman who, despite his limitations, would play like his life depended on it is being overlooked in favour of Kenwyne Jones. Frazier Campbell, one of Mackay’s most astute signings and a dangerous striker when on form, has seen his appearances limited and has been deployed, bizarrely, on the left wing. Wilfred Zaha, despite all his promise, has struggled to perform under Solskjaer and hardly endeared himself to the Cardiff fans by applauding the travelling support at Cardiff City Stadium last weekend.
Things aren’t about to get any better. Craig Noone, one of few who have performed consistently well for Cardiff, is out for the season and now an ugly battle looms over directorial spying and skulduggery between Cardiff and Palace. To claw themselves out of safety Solskjaer will need to find a way to pick up nine points from his remaining five matches against Southampton, Sunderland, Newcastle, Stoke and Chelsea. Of those, the two dreadful north-east clubs looks like the best bet for points, but only if Solskjaer can somehow lift what appears to be a dressing room already resigned to their fate.