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What if just vibes are enough for Manchester United? - UNLOCKED FOR ANNOYING MAN UTD FANS
Look, if you care so much about what I think on this, here it is.
This article was written for paid subscribers, but I’m letting the record state for everyone mad at me on Twitter that this is, essentially, my full position on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. It was originally published on 31st August 2021.
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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is a manager, not a coach.
I don’t think this is a positive or a negative. It’s simply how he works. Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, Bill Shankly and Brian Clough were all very much managers rather than coaches. Solskjaer’s top four rivals Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel might all be coaches to varying degrees, but that doesn’t mean one way is better than the other.
“I've never hidden the fact that I've got coaches who are better than me on the pitch”, Solskjaer has explained in the past. “The main chunks of the sessions, that's Kieran [McKenna], Michael [Carrick], Martyn [Pert] and Fletch [Darren Fletcher]. They do them.
"But man-management is my passion. I've got other skills, of course, but you've got to look at what other people can bring to the table that you can't. For me, to get the best out of every single player, by hook or by crook, by praise or by stick, that's an art and a science."
This can at times be a big strength. Someone like Luke Shaw seems to have clearly benefited from Solskjaer’s man-management work up close. The left back’s ability has never been in doubt, and he’s worked with some excellent coaches in the past who have given him a strong tactical framework. But Solskjaer seems to have helped build his mentality and confidence in a way that’s really let him play his best football, for both club and country.
It does, though, mean his instinct won’t be to solve problems in a more tactical manner. When Liverpool struggled to break down weaker opponents in Jurgen Klopp’s first two years, the answer was to alter the team’s possession approach from what had worked so well for the manager in Germany, placing more emphasis on creating through the full-backs. When Pep Guardiola was trying to figure out how to stop the Bundesliga’s rapid counter-attacks, the answer was to essentially invent a new position: Philipp Lahm and David Alaba were simultaneously full-backs and central midfielders.
Solskjaer seems unlikely to do that. When there’s a tactical problem in the side, it’s going to need to be solved by bringing in the right player. I don’t want to suggest this can’t work. Man Utd had a huge problem in possession that got fixed in a stroke by signing Bruno Fernandes. I don’t mean to say they simply threw money at the problem, though that is clearly a factor. You have to target the right profile of player to fix the problem, which is something they struggled to do under Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho. In recent windows, they seem to have achieved a higher level of competence lacking under those managers. Adding more of these good players will make the team better because duh.
The 1-0 win over Wolves was Solskjaer’s Man Utd encapsulated. The patterns of play weren’t clear. Jadon Sancho started on the left with Daniel James on the right, and this suited neither player. Sancho had a very frustrating game looking to get on the ball and drift inside, but Wolves condensed the pitch there pretty easily. With Luke Shaw on the overlap and Paul Pogba’s natural left-drifting tendencies, this is always the side United attack from, so it’s obvious where the opponent should focus on. On the opposite side, James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka had much more time and space on the ball in recognition of their much poorer quality in possession. Simply switching James and Sancho would’ve helped a lot. The reason it didn’t happen is, I would imagine, Sancho has told Solskjaer he prefers the left. Solskjaer, prioritising man management, has put the player’s needs before the tactical fit.
It was the same story across the pitch. Mason Greenwood played upfront and was allowed to drift wide as he likes to when the team needed someone to play the width of the six-yard box. Paul Pogba sat deep and looked to hit passes forward quickly even as the side needed someone to slow the tempo and dictate play. It’s hard to look at the way Solskjaer set his team up and say “yes, this is clearly the best way for these players to beat Wolves”.
But they won anyway.
Some of the commentary around signing Ronaldo has focused on the apparent mentality he’ll bring, as though Man Utd need a serial winner who can instil such a culture at Old Trafford. What I find bizarre about this is that the mentality is already pretty good. By a healthy margin, they picked up more points from losing positions than any other team in the league last campaign. They didn’t go behind, but Wolves was a decent example of how this team won’t stop pushing for the winner. Solskjaer obviously wants to instil that “never give in” attitude of Ferguson’s best teams, and I think he’s done a better job of that than many realise. He’s got a largely likeable and hard-working group of players willing to try their best for him and keep going regardless of the situation. They’re going to have the mental resilience to win most games. The question, then, is whether they have the tactical options and ideas.
Sancho struggled against Wolves, but he’s too good for this to not work out. If he doesn’t become a star at Old Trafford, serious questions have to be asked at the club. For me, he does need to be playing on the right to counteract the side’s natural left-sided skew. That would pretty quickly solve some of the balance issues they’ve had in recent years. Teams wouldn’t be able to let United comfortably have the ball on the right with someone of Sancho’s calibre there. Sancho also looks more comfortable on his natural side than Marcus Rashford, whose game is really about driving from outside to in. That can help the team stretch opponents in different ways without really having to devise a tactical solution.
Ronaldo’s arrival will fairly obviously give them something different in the box. I don’t think I need to explain to anyone what sort of player he is at this point. We’ve all seen him. During that bizarre 24 hours where it looked like he might go to City, I thought that would complete his evolution into someone who does all his work in and around the six-yard box. At United, it’s a little bit murkier. What he’ll be is a finisher in the broadest sense, someone who causes trouble at the end of moves rather than the start. The risk is that Solskjaer gives him too much licence to roam as he pleases, drifting out to that left side along with everyone else. Ronaldo will instantly be the Premier League’s most clinical and efficient player in the box, but he has to hold his position there lest he destabilise the side. A little jazz is good, but the team also needs a consistent beat.
That musical confusion might be because they lack a great conductor on the pitch. The Italian term regista literally means “director”, and the Spanish concept of an organising midfielder gets at the same idea. Man Utd are in need of organising. Pogba dropped into a deeper role against Wolves, and he has the superb passing range needed to thrive as a regista. But his instinct is always to quicken the pace by getting it forward fast. Every team needs that at times, but the balance isn’t there. I always think of Man City’s devastating former combination of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva. De Bruyne would kill you by quickening the pace while Silva would kill you by slowing it down. At United, both Pogba and Fernandes are trying to speed it up every time. It’s funny that Michael Carrick is on the coaching staff because he’s the player this side needs to a T. They’re leaving it awfully late, but there is at least some noise in that department.
I wouldn’t count on it, though. Solskjaer’s Man Utd will likely continue to play this unstructured jazz. They keep adding more great musicians to the band, though, and it has to produce at least some great music.
Man Utd might not be able to run on more than the individual quality of the players in a motivated setting. But most of the time, simply having the best players means you’re very likely to win the game. And they have the best players most of the time. That might just be enough.