With the benefit of hindsight, the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson was inevitably going to cause massive issues at Manchester United. Despite the Scot’s advancing years, virtually all aspects relating to football were overseen or controlled by him. He was and is an incredible man, an unrivalled leader, and a master delegator. This enabled the club to enjoy over two decades of sustained domestic and European success. It was a structure quite unlike any other in modern football, as this one seemingly omnipotent presence exerted overall control regarding team selection, tactics, player recruitment, staff appointments, youth development, scouting, media duties, and countless other duties. He famously knew everyone connected to the club, had unparalleled contacts throughout the world, and placed enormous value on intimately understanding the character, upbringing and family of each of his players. Under his regime, at all times there was a cohesiveness to the club, and an unrelenting desire to outwork their opponents. Gifted players were empowered to play with risk and flair, and winning silverware every year became a minimum expectation. Standards were maintained, or Sir Alex wielded the axe on anyone not buying into the ethos of the club.
Unfortunately, when Ferguson chose to go, any semblance of a coherent structure went with him. There appeared to have been no consideration afforded to succession planning. Of course, this was worsened by the simultaneous departure of David Gill as Chief Executive. Ferguson was the structure. Other clubs had modernised and compartmentalised. Directors of football had become the norm to offer continuity and consistency, particularly with player recruitment, playing style and contract negotiations. Top clubs employed extensive scouting networks, tying in with youth development by identifying the brightest prospects from across Europe. Youth teams and under-23’s were playing with the same systems and tactics employed by the first teams. The top European sides had embraced professionalism. Changing head coach / manager no longer necessarily meant ripping things up to start again. Liverpool, Man City, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and many clubs of less stature had organised themselves so that the manager did not control all aspects of the club beyond first team.
Following Ferguson’s retirement over 7 years ago, Manchester United are still playing catch up, without obviously catching up. In recent times, significant strides have been made to re-invigorate the youth teams, with Nicky Butt installed as the head of youth development. This has already shown signs of reaping rewards, with a number of youngsters breaking into the first team, and plenty of encouraging prospects. Away from football, the club’s revenue has gone from strength to strength, and the Glazer family have benefitted massively from Ed Woodward’s ability to shamelessly market the Manchester United brand to all takers, ranging from tractor manufacturers to noodle partners. The Executive vice-chairman has, by all accounts, done a remarkable job that is being mirrored by the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Aside from that though, in football terms, the structure remains shambolic. It is clear that those making the key decisions are extremely naïve, and not equipped to make sound football decisions. Previous to his appointment with Manchester United, Ed Woodward was an investment banker. This is where his skills lie. His current role, though, puts him in charge of all day to day operations. He has been responsible for hiring four different managers in his seven years in post, with each representing a full stylistic shift from their predecessor. Woodward has spoken frequently about the possibility of a director of football, without any action. He seems reluctant, for unknown reasons, to give up his influence over decisions he has no legitimate right to make.
Speaking to the Telegraph in 2019, Woodward said “There is a myth that we have non‑football people making football decisions, and it’s insulting to the brilliant people who work on the football side in this club,” he said. “Many of the senior staff on the football side of the club have been in their roles for over 10 years. Some of our scouts have worked with us for more than 25 years.” Admitting the difficulties following Ferguson’s retirement, he continued “We’ve expanded our recruitment department in recent years and we believe this now runs in an efficient and productive way,” Woodward said. “Player recommendations and decisions are worked on by this department and by the first-team manager and his staff, not by senior management.”
A good response to this patently untrue statement was articulated by an exasperated Gary Neville, speaking on his own podcast back in September following their season-opening defeat to Crystal Palace. “They have to find a way to get deals done and they can’t get deals done efficiently. It is negligence not to get the squad in place – they have had six months since March. United have got the money…. They have not got the quality or experience of football people within that club. It looks like a convoluted and complex structure. I’m not quite sure where the decisions lie”.
Neville continued his steady spiral into despair after the seismic 1-6 humbling at home to Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur: “I can’t believe, with the investment that has been put into the squad over the last five or six years and you end up with that out on the pitch. I cannot believe it. I saw a statistic that Manchester United have the second highest wage bill in the world. And that is the squad they have got? It is unforgivable. I can’t change the ownership of Manchester United, no-one can, but I am struggling to understand why the ownership has persisted in trusting that management team to oversee that investment. If you don’t lose your job for overseeing that investment, that wage bill and putting that team out on the pitch, something is really wrong.”
The disastrous decisions taken on player recruitment have been far more consistent than on-pitch results. Close to £1 billion has been spent by Woodward on acquisitions. This is an eye-watering sum of money when you consider the amount of high profile flops that have wilted at Old Trafford: Di Maria, Falcao, Memphis Depay, Schweinsteiger, Schneiderlin, Alexis Sanchez, Marcos Rojo – the list unfortunately goes on. The decisions to award huge and long-term contracts to Phil Jones, Jesse Lingard, Luke Shaw, Andreas Pereira, David De Gea and Juan Mata have contributed to the obscene wage bill, whilst the players have limited or no resale value. The contract of Ander Herrera was allowed to run down so he left on a free. This created a squad that was a mishmash of different types of players, lacking depth in key positions, and in many cases lacking the quality and character to play for a club of the stature of Manchester United.
With this context, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has always faced an uphill struggle in transforming the fortunes of this once great club, which has been creating more meme material than it has any sustained success. Woodward, though, claimed in 2019 that Solskjaer’s permanent appointment represented a necessary shift in the direction of the club, and how it would build for the future. “He is building a squad that respects the club’s history, in which players work hard and respect their teammates. No one is bigger than the club. Ole’s vision maps exactly to the core three football objectives we have: we must win trophies, we must play attacking football and we must give youth its chance.”
In February this year, Woodward told a fans forum: “The recruitment department is working to a clear plan and philosophy, along with Ole and his coaching staff. Our focus is on bringing in a combination of experience and the best young players with potential to develop further, fusing graduates from our academy with high-quality acquisitions. Our recruitment process focuses on analysis and selection of players over the course of a season, with a view to the following summer transfer window. As part of the rebuild we see this coming summer as an important opportunity.”
Despite trying to create the impression that the club had a clear and detailed plan, specifically targeting players who add quality and depth to the squad and carrying out sufficient due diligence, the reality was very different. Solskjaer clearly identified Jadon Sancho is his main target for the summer transfer window. The ensuing saga generated an exhausting level of reporting, with Manchester United playing a big money game of chicken with Borussia Dortmund, who had made it clear months ahead of the close of the window that they weren’t playing. Leaving the signings of Edinson Cavani, Alex Telles, Facundo Pellestri and Amad Diallo until the final day of the window can only signal the total ineptitude of all involved. Cavani could have presumably been signed at any stage over the summer but was blatantly a last-minute attempt at appeasement having failed to make a serious offer for Sancho. Telles also could have been completed earlier, but he also was not the first-choice target, and the club haggled the price for around three weeks to pay the original sum Porto had asked for. The signings of the two youngsters appear to have been identified earlier, both with an eye to the future, yet again was conducted in a late panic. Donny Van De Beek was he one piece of early business that was concluded, and yet the manager appears reluctant to play him. It is not known if Van De Beek was bought at his request.
Solskjaer’s level of involvement is totally unclear, but what is clear is that he has not received what he was asking for. He is in a difficult position, as he has been appointed to his dream job which he wants to keep at all costs but he has been over-promoted based on his track record. This suits the owners of the club, as they know he will not cause any public embarrassment towards them in the way that Mourinho had started to. Solskjaer may well have frustrations with the running of the club, but he is not of the stature where he feels he can challenge his employers.
The Norwegian is a legend at United and comes across as a very decent and likeable character. However, at a club that requires an overhaul of structure and ethos, it looks increasingly unlikely that he has the vision, the true respect of the players, or the ability to deliver in these most challenging circumstances. The recently released biography written by Jamie Jackson ‘Ole Gunnar Solskjaer: The Making of Manchester United’s Great Hope’, contains a revealing story from his brief tenure as manager of Cardiff City back in 2014.
Cardiff defender Ben Turner recalls: “I know he wasn’t given the full trust to manage in his own way without any interference. There were boys who were called in and told we weren’t playing and it really wasn’t his decision – that it was coming from above.
As an example, we were in a relegation dogfight, had Aston Villa [on 11 February, 2014]and drew 0-0. It’s probably the best I’ve ever played in my life. Then we played Hull and three of the back four that started against Villa and got the clean sheet were dropped.
I was told I was dropped for Juan Cala because Ole was told he had to play. Ole said: ‘I know we got a clean sheet against Villa, but I’ve been told that I have to play Juan Cala.’
I was told I wasn’t playing because we wanted to try and pass the ball out more from the back. They told him – Ole – that on that basis Juan had to play, that was one of the reasons he was brought in. Well, it was a disaster because Juan and Steven Caulker didn’t get on, and they were the centre-backs. It was a concern – what player wants to hear they’re dropped because it’s coming from the owner [Vincent Tan]?
The way I looked at it was this: the owner’s got all the money in the world. He’s running a football club essentially as a side hobby and he’s got new toys and the new toy that week was Juan Cala. I had no reason to doubt what the gaffer was saying to me, that it’d come from above. He was an honest, genuine guy as far as I was concerned. We got relegated but he always had integrity.”
Cardiff, at that time, were another basket-case football club. Solskjaer’s failure there has been well-publicised and is one of the reasons his pedigree is questioned. However, there was clear owner interference in terms of team selection, tactics and recruitment, making his an extremely difficult job. Starting to sound familiar? The players liked Ole and appreciated his honesty, but it must be difficult to respect a manager who doesn’t stand up to this level of interference. It is therefore a great concern that the man Woodward claims is so central to the re-structuring of Manchester United appears to have so little influence over transfers and the structure of the huge squad. He is not going to rock the boat – but that is not the strength of character and resolve that is required to restore the club back to the top level of European football.
Solskjaer has just marked 100 games in charge of the side. It is a significant enough sample size to be able to make solid conclusions about the direction of the club, and his playing style. The Norwegian has won 55, drawn 21, and endured 25 defeats. Jose Mourinho won 62 of his first 100 matches, drawing 23 and losing 15. From there, it started to go horribly wrong for the abrasive Mourinho, as he began to publicly air frustrations with the board, and the inner machinations of the club. It does show, though, that Solskjaer’s record is less than inspiring. A late season surge did secure a top 4 spot last season, but with a points total that had them closer to relegated Bournemouth than Liverpool.
The fact is, despite gaining plaudits for sealing third place, and defeats in three semi-finals, Solskjaer has at best achieved par in his first full season. The results at the start of this season have turned up the heat, and there is genuine pressure mounting despite the excellent wins against PSG and RB Leipzig. Taking the constraints into account, the question still needs to be asked – has progress been made under Solskjaer?
The answer is, of course, not binary. The performance of this side is completely baffling and entirely unpredictable. At the moments when Ole has reached his lowest ebbs, they have typically responded with extremely impressive victories. He has triumphed over Manchester City three times, Chelsea three times, PSG twice, as well as victories over Spurs, Arsenal and Leicester. The most significant criticism has been an inability to break down sides defending with a low block. Solskjaer has demonstrated an ability to construct a bespoke game plan for conquering some of the elite sides, as the strength undoubtedly lies in their devastating counter attacks. Time and again, though, it has been painful to watch the slow, predictable build up play that sides of lesser ability have easily repelled by employing a deep defensive line.
There is enough evidence to show that Solskjaer has been unable to coach the side to play with width and unpredictability to break these sides down, and teams have been quick to figure this out. When Solskjaer was handed the reins, he spoke to the club website about his playing philosophy: “At Man United, we play without fear, we play with courage. Go out there and express your skills. Pace and power, that’s what we are. When you have players like we have, with the pace – Paul [Pogba], Anthony [Martial], Alexis [Sanchez], Romelu [Lukaku], [Marcus] Rashford – that’s how we played with Andy [Cole], Yorkie [Dwight Yorke], with Giggsy [Ryan Giggs] and Becks [David Beckham] down the sides. We attack quickly when you can. Get the ball up in their half as soon as you can, as quickly as you can. If you score, fantastic, if not then you’ve got to have patient build-up play. But, attack quickly.”
He has certainly delivered on the promise of pace, and the ability to attack quickly when sides leave themselves vulnerable in transitions. The issue is, the appears to be where the plan ends. There is no other defined playing style, and too much talk of replicating the side of 1999 – football has evolved. Other sides show consistent playing patterns, with players who are clearly well-drilled and know their roles. Manchester United have frequently changed formations and selections in an effort to find the right combination, or to try and accommodate all of the big-name players. The positional organisation and player awareness has, at times, been disgraceful. The statistics this season are particularly damning of United’s playing style. From Opta stats, Manchester United are 14th in the league for average distance covered per game, and are in last place for passes per defensive action (PPDA) – the number of passes their opposition make before a defensive action in the defensive and middle thirds of the pitch. This shows that United players are not pressing with any intensity and are not typically outworking their opponents.
Is this the fault of the players? Or the fault of the manager and coaching staff? Roy Keane treated us to a captivating rant on Sky Sports following the home defeat to Arsenal. “He talked about the players there and I’m always intrigued, we forgive players for making mistakes or having an off day but when you’re listening to a manager talking about, ‘Well we didn’t start well, enthusiasm…’ I scratch my head at players who don’t have enthusiasm for a game of football. I’d love to be sitting here saying they look like a great bunch of lads and saying they’ll bounce back but this group, their last huge disappointment was only three or four weeks ago, not three or four months ago. They’ve not won the 10-15 games, this team can only react for a few weeks, they can’t get carried away and think, ‘We’re a team now.’”
Keane continued: “The manager’s job, I’ve never looked at a manager in all my career – I’m talking about great managers, some bad managers going back to when I was eight or nine years of age – I never looked at them to say, ‘Are you going to motivate me today?’ That comes from within, that comes from the DNA and what you stand for, your background, your family, your team-mates. Do you think it’s up to Ole to motivate these players to turn up against Arsenal at home?”
The mentality of the squad as a collective certainly appears to be an issue. Confidence is fragile, and too many of the squad pick and choose their games. Motivation should be a pre-requisite, but it is difficult to explain the drops in performance levels other than a fundamental lack of application and intensity. It is true that this should not come only from the manager, and Solskjaer has made efforts to improve the character of his squad. There is still much work to be done, and Keane was particularly scathing, stating these players would cost Ole his job sooner or later. That is largely dependent on whether there is indeed a long-term and fixed plan with Solskjaer at the helm, or, more likely, the structure and character of the club remains a mess, and the amiable Norwegian will become the latest casualty. Fans will him to succeed, and he retains broad support, but there is a prevailing sense that he is not the man to deliver success to the club. He is also far from the only obstacle to meaningful progress. As Keane went on to wryly state, “It’s a long, long way back for this club”.
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