The Solskjaer effect will be a game changer when hiring coaches
Manchester United have proven the benefits of giving former players top managerial jobs, and it might catch on
Six years after Sir Alex Ferguson retired, Manchester United finally have the successor they wanted. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is the manager David Moyes was supposed to be in 2013; hand-picked by Ferguson, in awe of the legend's methods and unprecedented success, ready and willing to defer to the history and existing structure of the club.
We focus so much on what makes an elite, modern coach and there are certain qualities we take for granted, such as tactical acumen and leadership skills. What Solskjaer’s success tells us is that there is another element in recruitment which goes beyond experience or a CV full of major trophies. If your face fits and history determines you to be in the right place at the right time, your appointment can be more inspired than imaginable.
When an individual spends so much time at one club, particularly an institution such as Manchester United which is accustomed to success and where the ambition at the start of every season is to win the Premier League and the European Cup, it is possible to become so indoctrinated in how to handle elite footballers that it becomes your specialism.
There are plenty of managers who thrive in organising and maximising the potential of those with limited ability but who are out of their depth when dealing with world-class players. It can be the same in reverse.
Solskjaer struggled as Cardiff City coach because he had to learn how to build a defensive team – something he would never have seen on the United training ground. It is logical he looks so much more at home in the environment in which he was educated in how football should be played.
What was alien to some of the greatest football minds of their era – Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho – is natural to Solskjaer. It seems he walked into Old Trafford and asked for everything to be put back to how it was on the day he left, resetting the clock to Fergie time.
There has been no need for him to learn the United way, connect to the club’s traditions or rehearse answers to tricky media questions. Everything has been so relaxed and familiar. Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho must be witnessing Solskjaer’s impact and wondering what they did wrong.
When Ferguson left, United’s succession plan was for seamless transition, as Moyes was thought to be mentored by his predecessor to absorb the club’s values. While other major clubs across the Premier League and Europe hired and fired managers, United would be the epitome of stability. The identity of the man in the dugout would change, everything else would remain. The intentions were correct, but once Moyes went his own way and was swiftly deemed unsuited to the role, United became everything they thought they would not be: erratic and unrecognisable.
By the time Van Gaal and Mourinho arrived it felt like they were answering an SOS, recruited to resolve United’s problems as they were losing the winning habit.
The board seemed to crave stellar names worthy of the badge, believing only those with previous experience of managing the biggest teams in the world could handle a club of United’s size. They won cups during their reign, yet United will now accept they compromised everything that made them stand out under Ferguson.
Van Gaal and Mourinho often gave the impression they were doing the hierarchy a favour by taking the job. Managers with their track record will always impose their own vision rather than adhere to an existing formula. They were never going to call up Ferguson and ask him how things should be done. They took the club away from what it was.
Importantly, the connection between the supporters and the manager was lost. To some, this may seem inconsequential – it is difficult to imagine the Paris St-Germain owners seeking managers who have rapport with their fans. United are different. History matters. Ferguson was the right man for United in the 1980s, not only because of his management genius, but also because of the genealogical trail leading back to Sir Matt Busby. It is the same at my old club, Liverpool, where the managers are idolised as much as players – expected to be reverential to Bill Shankly’s revolution in the 1960s as much as creating their own legacy.
When Ferguson left, nothing needed to radically change. Players would come and go, of course, but there was a template that no one expected to alter. United were still English champions. Van Gaal and Mourinho had plenty of respect but there was never love. The trophies they won will be looked upon as having been secured in an era of toleration, the hope being that the entertainment would return over time. It never did.
I wrote 18 months ago that I felt Pep Guardiola would win the title with United’s squad. What we have seen since the shackles came off under Solskjaer supports my argument. Solskjaer has brought back the United way, re-establishing front-foot football, while packing the team with pace for counter-attacking and not being afraid to blood youngsters like he did Tahith Chong and Mason Greenwood in Paris.
Such moments have a galvanising effect, reassuring supporters the person in charge understands their club.
The caretaker manager’s impact may help shift the attitudes of boardrooms across Europe. Football tends to follow trends and the next time a club are in trouble, do not be surprised if they seek their own Solskjaer effect by hunting down an ex-player to restore former glories. Look at Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid, another coach demeaned by some of his peers for his supposed lack of coaching acumen, yet able to oversee three European Cups in succession. Barcelona reaped the rewards with Guardiola, which looks like a no-brainer now but had more risk at the time.
Former players have the immediate advantage of a bond with supporters, buying them time if they have a tricky start. If they hit the ground running, their legend grows. The challenges will never end for Solskjaer as he continues to justify the faith in him.
United face another tough game at Arsenal tomorrow. When Solskjaer was appointed, the club could not have imagined how much the season’s possibilities would have shifted by the time of this fixture. They looked like they would be stranded in the Europa League places, not catching the top four. Now he faces the welcome dilemma of working out how to rotate his squad without compromising trophy ambitions and that all-important league position.
His next test will be juggling the squad to deal with three competitions as United are still in the FA Cup. Since the top-four places secured Champions League participation, some clubs have seemed more obsessed with qualifying for the next year than actually winning it. Solskjaer has given United the chance to do both. Should he hold aloft the European Cup in May, he will have achieved the impossible – United's victory in Barcelona in 1999 will become the second-greatest comeback in the club’s history.
– © The Daily Telegraph