Written by: Siddesh K Iyer Follow @Sid10RedDevil
These are quality players. You play without fear, with courage. You go out there and express your skills. Take risks. I want the players to be the kids that love to play football and go out in front of the best fans in the world.
–Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (in his first press conference as the MUFC caretaker manager)
In 1999, a certain Norwegian got Manchester United to promise land with an impossible and unbelievable stoppage-time winner against a formidable Bayern side in the Champions League final. And now, the baby-faced assassin as he’s commonly referred to in the football world is back again at Old Trafford but now at the helm of arguably the biggest club in the world, now completely equipped with managerial expertise and under the guidance of football’s greatest manager ever, Sir Alex Ferguson. Yes, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is now the caretaker manager for the rest of the season at Old Trafford, very much a surprise choice to succeed Josè Mourinho who was given the sack after his torrid run at the club this season. Now, Mourinho for all the tirade he’s faced from the media and fans alike, was the most successful manager United have had since Sir Alex retired, with the UEFA Europa League, the EFL Cup (now the Carabao Cup) and the FA Community Shield to his credit. He also got United to a respectable 2nd place finish in the Premier League last season. However, this season, United have been shambolic under Jose with uncertainty being the theme in all the games, be it a victory or a loss. United seemed to have lost their identity under Jose Mourinho and it always seemed the case of first ensuring a 0-0 and then pondering over whether a goal scoring opportunity actually exists.
It would be very naive on one’s part to label Jose Mourinho’s style of play as a complete failure, after having seen him hold the football world by the scruff of its neck with some formidable teams at Inter Milan, Real Madrid and his first stint at Chelsea in 2004. However, pragmatism can only take a team so far. Under Mourinho, it is always the case of the opposition doing A and B, and his side exercising a C option in a bid to quell the opposition’s tactics. However, even the slightest change in the opposition’s style of play leaves him under the cosh and with uncertainty looming over his team as well as the security of his job. In England, there’s a certain tradition and legacy that you’re supposed to uphold at clubs like Man Utd and Liverpool and in the first place, United were always foregoing their traditions in the favour of some quick silverware when they appointed Jose Mourinho in 2016. A defensive and sturdy approach, lack of flexibility and as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would say, a lack of “boldness” in their gameplay. It seemed great in his first season, with Zlatan bailing him out on multiple occasions, with two major trophies to brag about, the second season, much more downbeat with a 2nd place finish and the current ongoing season, an absolute debacle with super-sub Solskjaer, technically “on loan” from Norwegian side Molde in as caretaker manager.
Solskjaer’s first major task at United would be to release the players off the shackles and let the world-class attacking talent at the club ebb and flow with the swagger that Sir Alex used to emphasize time and again. He certainly seems to have checked the first box here, Ole’s first match in charge ended up with United smashing FIVE goals past a hapless Cardiff side, although it seems very early to suggest that he has truly achieved a shift in philosophy. Nevertheless, getting a goal shy United side to score five goals in the Premier League for the first time since Sir Alex retired is truly a major feat in itself.
Another task at hand is to motivate the players and inculcate a team spirit amongst them to transform United as a closely knit unit of extremely talented and world-class players rather than a shoddy amalgamation of world-class players with some square pegs in round holes due to prejudices and other off-the-pitch issues to deal with, many of these players at United have been openly criticised during Mourinho’s reign at the club and Solskjaer, who models himself under the guidance of Sir Alex would want to stop the buck and help the players and staff at the club achieve the true potential that they can reach. According to most of the experts in the football world, this United side is not short on talent and is up there to compete with most top sides, if the players perform at the level they can. One or two signings in defence and the right wing can get this side up there with the best with the right guidance and style of play.
Now, coming to the most important cog of this managerial transformation at Old Trafford. Undoubtedly, it has to be Mike Phelan. As much an inspirational figure Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is, he needs a calm and experienced football brain to pull the strings at United. Mike Phelan is truly a master tactician, who was trusted by football’s most decorated manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. He knows how to get the best out of the players and is one of those who was part of Sir Alex’s managerial team, totally built on United’s traditions of having a duty to play for the badge and responsibility to play with swagger with the attack being the best form of defence. A pioneer of the famous 4-2-4 formation, a variation of 4-3-3 with Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez and Berbatov in the final third waging one attack after another leaves any football fan nostalgic. That brand of football doesn’t exist anymore, but then football is all about motivating and letting the players believe in themselves and the philosophy of the club they’re playing for. Once a manager does that, the transformation is a seamless ride with the creation of a winning machine, a juggernaut, the end result of it. And this managerial line up of Solskjaer, Phelan, Carrick and McKenna has the potential to at least lay the foundation of this transformation during the remainder of this season. And, a transformation isn’t the only agenda at stake this season, with a Top 4 finish, the FA Cup and well, even the Champions League still up for grabs. Will Solskjaer do a Roberto Di Matteo and gazump football’s ultimate prize? Let’s not carried away, for now, the transformation and a shift in philosophy have to be game by game and in small steps.
Another pertinent question in front of the United hierarchy is a change in the structure of the club to acclimatise itself to the modern football world. A Director of Football (DoF) or a Technical Director, whatever the name is a position that’s become the pivot of any modern-day top football club. United is one of those very few clubs, operating on a traditional structure where the manager has the entire responsibility to handle the recruitment and analysis of prospective new buys. The list compiled by the manager is then acted upon directly by the Executive vice chairman of the club, Mr Ed Woodward who is in charge of the club on both the technical as well as commercial aspects. It is no secret that Manchester United football club as a brand is commercially one of the most lucrative ones in the world. As of June 2018, United is at the first position on the Forbes list of the most valuable football clubs in the world, with a value of $4,123m (£3,059m) and the commercial and broadcasting activities contributing a whopping 61.13% of the total team value of MUFC. Further, Manchester United PLC is also listed on the NYSE currently trading at $18.43 a share. In a nutshell, Manchester United football club as a business unit remains extremely profitable and United’s American owners, the Glazers, have generated truckloads of wealth from MUFC’s proceedings alone. Unlike many other clubs, United’s transfer budget and other technical expenditures are managed from the club’s money that it generates via matchday revenues, commercial contracts, broadcasting revenues and the prize money during the course of the season. However, the performances on the pitch and the technical decisions will determine the long-term success and profitability of MUFC as a brand. For this reason, a club of Manchester United’s stature must appoint a Director of Football for obvious reasons. And this decision is probably very high on the “make or break” scale as compared to the appointment of a permanent manager at MUFC next season. According to the words doing the rounds in the media, Paul Mitchell, currently the Head of Recruitment at Bundesliga club, RB Leipzig is the frontrunner to join MUFC as a DoF, having had previous experience in the Premier League as a player and in a recruitment role at Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur, alongside Mauricio Pochettino, who remains as one of the favourites to take over as permanent manager at MUFC in the summer. Another potential candidate for the DoF role is Peter Schmeichel, the former MUFC goalkeeper, an Old Trafford legend, and a player immensely respected across the football world. Now, a football expert and a regular feature on Premier League TV, Peter recently declared his interest in the DoF role on BBC radio. The appointment of a DoF should definitely inject a new lease of life in the operating of the football club, and let Mr.Woodward do the commercial dealings of the club and there’s no doubt he’s up there with the best in the world when it comes to increasing the brand value of the club. Be it Paul Mitchell or Peter Schmeichel or someone else, a DoF is a necessity at a club of MUFC’s stature.
Managerial changes, structural overhauls, new players to recruit across two very important transfer window, maintaining MUFC’s position as the most valuable club in the world and getting Manchester United Football Club up to where it truly belongs, back amongst the goals and trophies. Some list that, for the MUFC hierarchy to accomplish but that’s what’s the agenda for the next one year looks like. Ole’s got us smiling again and taken a huge step forward in clearing the grey skies with that statement win against Cardiff. However, this progress needs to consistent and the attacking philosophy needs to ingrained in the team over the long-term. As I wrap up this piece, with “Glory Glory Man United” playing in full throttle, here’s to the glory days returning to Old Trafford really soon!
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