Tim Ferriss is an American entrepreneur, best-selling author, and host of his own hugely popular podcast, The Tim Ferriss Show, which focusses on ‘the tactics, routines, and habits of billionaires, icons, and world-class performers’. Ferriss is obsessive and relentlessly inquisitive in ensuring that his many business ventures and investments are successful. This is characterised by strategic, logical, and at times ruthless decision-making.
Strategic and logical decision-making are traits that have been absent at Manchester United for a long time; certainly, when considering the sporting performance of a football team who seem to have become secondary to a global business enterprise. The issues in the sporting structure of the club are extensive, and significant change at a root and branch level is required before any level of sustained success and restoration of former glories can be achieved. For the Old Trafford fan base, a change in ownership is a pre-requisite in repairing this badly damaged club, which has deteriorated at a steady rate as the ethos has shifted to taking money out of the club. Funds have been crudely re-invested in an assortment of players identified due to their profile, marketing potential, and reputation. There has been, to this point, virtually no due diligence into researching the character or ambition of new recruits, with no consistency in terms of balance in the squad or playing style. The club can be held up as an example of poor management in every facet except for extracting money from any and every available commercial avenue.
With that being said, Manchester United’s Executive vice chairman Ed Woodward spoke to investors in September 2019 and made some bold claims that success on the field was still the focus of the club. He stated that significant investment had been made into the academy, the recruitment department, and the training ground facilities. He continued with a straight face: “Whilst we’re confident this investment will deliver results, it’s important that we’re patient, while Ole and his team build for the future. We will continue to focus on the long-term strategy and won’t be influenced by short-term distractions”.
Going back to Tim Ferriss, an exercise he regularly conducts to ensure his plans are all on track is called ‘Fear-Setting’. This is a checklist on which he considers the possible results of his actions, or inactions; a way to visualise all the bad things that could happen to you, so you become less afraid of taking action. The most important part of this process is to consider the long-term effects of inaction. He explains “Do you really think it will improve or is it wishful thinking and an excuse for inaction? Are you better off than you were one year ago, one month ago, or one week ago? If not, things will not improve by themselves”. Failure to take action where it is clearly necessary can cause an already bad situation to get steadily worse.
This can be a painful process. It forces a clinical and detached assessment of the state of a project, team, or idea. Ed Woodward claims to have a ’long-term strategy’. The Cambridge dictionary defines strategy as ‘a detailed plan for achieving success’. Judging by the last six seasons, it is doubtful whether there has been any consistent strategy whatsoever; however, let’s make the generous assumption that the club’s hierarchy really are invested in a long-term project. At this relatively early stage, the practice of Fear Setting may be a beneficial one.
Central to Ed Woodward’s strategy is, allegedly, his appointment as permanent manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The Norwegian’s focus is on youth, and the fulfilment of the potential of his academy prospects and youthful new signings. This is a massive shift from the previous emphasis on marquis signings of players who, almost without exception, have flattered to deceive. Expectations around the club are sufficiently lowered to the extent that the fan base would be content if the side played entertaining, attacking football, and remained competitive in the race for the top four. Supporters in the main appreciate that a complete re-structuring of the club’s facilities and playing staff is long-overdue, and it can take time to achieve success. There is an appetite to embrace a project which would show steady improvement towards the pinnacle of European football once again. That must be the aim of a club with the stature and resources of Manchester United.
As a club legend, Solskjaer enjoys significant good will from the fans, who remain supportive and loyal in the face of the club’s worst start to a season in over 30 years. Compared to his predecessors, he has endured far less scrutiny despite having produced not only the worst results of any United manager, but also some of the worst performances in their Premier League history.
Woodward must ask himself ‘Do you really think it will improve, or is it wishful thinking and an excuse for inaction?’ Consider the evidence. Solskjaer has achieved reasonable success coaching Norwegian side Molde, winning the title with them in each of his first two seasons – the first league titles they had won in their history. That was enough to get him the Cardiff City job in January 2014, which proved to be a disaster as they were relegated and he lost 12 of his 18 games in charge, winning just three. Solskjaer himself reflected “Norway is a small environment. There are only three to four agents to deal with, just 15 other clubs, and that’s it. I obviously was not ready for the entire Premier League showcase at a brand-new club that I was not familiar with”.
He then returned to Molde and managed them to two successive 2nd place finishes, until his beloved Manchester United came calling in December 2018. Famously, his time as caretaker manager was superb, winning 10 and losing just one of his 13 league games, culminating in the famous triumph over PSG in the Champions League knockout stage.
Since that night, Solskjaer has presided over 36 games, losing 11 and drawing 9. By any standards, that is an abysmal record. In almost one full year in charge, performances are devoid of any discernible patterns of play, or any defined style. A manager who has previously claimed “My brand is forward minded – forward passing, forward running. I want to attack. I want the players to express themselves”, has undoubtedly failed to impose any of those characteristics upon his squad. He repeated in pre-season “We want to find a style that we want to play, on the front foot, so it has to start some time and it’s easier in pre-season than in the middle of a season”. Manchester United have scored 19 goals in 13 league games this season, failing to score more than a single goal in 9 of those fixtures.
The harsh reality is that the decline under Solskjaer has accelerated, and there is no reason to believe that he is someone who can reverse that trend. If you strip away the sentimentality and the good will, he is a manager with no top flight European pedigree, and an extremely poor track record. His record is even more appalling if you consider that his new manager bounce was, with hindsight, probably more owing to the fact that he is not Jose Mourinho, than any tactical or coaching influence he had over the side. This obviously sounds harsh, but since March, he has been unable to motivate his team on a consistent basis. He is unable to set the side up to break down organised and resolute defences, and his biggest successes have been built on a reactive, counter-attacking approach.
Loyalty and consistency are admirable in building a project. Manchester United know that better than any other club from the length of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign. However, as Sir Alex knows, backing the right horse is the key. There is simply no reason to be optimistic that Solskjaer will be able to deliver success.
It is not purely a coaching issue – with the current composition of the club, any manager would struggle. That, though, does not mean that another manager would not do a much better job. A manager with a proven track record is surely mandatory when embarking on a long-term rebuilding process. A world-famous club with ridiculous revenues does not have to gamble on an, at best, unproven manager. At this stage of a carefully planned strategy, it is understandable to have bumps in the road, but at the very least there should be evidence of progress. It is true that young players have been introduced to the first team squad, but the current environment is not conducive to their development.
Young players are welcome in the Manchester United first team, and this ethos is clearly central. However, to overhaul the squad without more mature leaders and seasoned professionals is not fair on them and could hamper them and their ability to express themselves and play with confidence. Solskjaer has sanctioned the transfers of Fellaini, Lukaku, Sanchez and Smalling, and lost Herrera, without replacing any of them. Can the squad be expected to have any fortitude of character or a winning mentality when these youngsters do not have players in their dressing room to look up to? Solskjaer has publicly stated that the lack of further arrivals was his decision due to the right options being unavailable. Sitting 9th in the table is simply unacceptable, regardless of the status of the project. The 3-3 draw at Bramall Lane was the latest inept display, despite the comeback, and Solskjaer got his tactics and selection wrong to start with, and again in the closing stages.
There are mitigating factors, but Solskjaer is not getting the best out of this group of players. If Manchester United are not presently making every effort to recruit the now unemployed Mauricio Pochettino, then they are not acting in the best interests of the club. He is a manager who has proven that he can quickly progress with a project in his spells at Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur. Despite the end of his time at Spurs, he has proven his abilities within the Premier League, and has consistently over-achieved with inferior resources. His five and a half season stay also shows that he is dedicated to seeing a project to completion.
The accusation against Pochettino is that he has failed to win a trophy. Counter this with the fact that he has consistently secured top four finishes, and reached the Champions League final last season, then it is clear he is the outstanding candidate for United to pursue. He has improved countless players and proven his abilities in the transfer market.
Importantly, he has consistently been able to motivate his players, including even the most fragile. Psychology in sport is paramount to any success. This is crucial given the temperament of this current Manchester United squad. Luke Shaw is emblematic of the current crop of players who seem to have a constant inner conflict in terms of belief and confidence. Writing of his time under Poch in the epilogue of Guillem Balague’s 2017 book ‘Brave New World: Inside Pochettino’s Spurs’, Shaw states: “I think with Southampton he achieved the impossible. We were one of the best footballing teams in the league. He used to call me his son, that’s how good our relationship was. I’ve had lots of ups and downs, but when I was with Pochettino it was only ever up, up, up”.
Solskjaer largely retains the support of the Old Trafford faithful, but it is hard to imagine any players writing similar superlatives of him when reflecting on his managerial tenure in Manchester. Inaction – leaving Solskjaer in post – could be costly to the club in setting them even further down the road to decline. Change can be hard, but it can also be for the better. It’s time to end the romance and deal with the reality.
Would Pochettino be tempted to take the reins at Manchester United? That is another question altogether.