Manchester United’s 5-1 victory against Cardiff in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first game in charge was the first time the team has scored five goals since Sir Alex Ferguson’s last game in charge in May 2013, when West Brom held them to a 5-5 draw. Since then, three managers have come and gone and we have been left with the impression that only massive investment and the world’s greatest managers could possibly bring back the glory days.
Ole’s main message to the boys seems to have been “Go out there and express yourselves”, and, let’s face it, there can’t have been time to do much more than that from a tactical point of view. The results speak for themselves. Could it be that all three post-Ferguson managers – Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho – just simply overthought things? Is it a case of “less is more”? Could Sir Alex’s legacy have continued to grow and flourish if we had paid less attention to finding a great coach to replace him, and more attention to simply maintaining the principles upon which his success was founded?
Some of the differences were obvious straight from the kick off in Cardiff – players playing without fear, looking for space and a positive run, trying a skill move, popping up all over the pitch. United’s third goal is a perfect example. Anthony Martial started the move from a deep right midfield position – something that would have been totally discouraged under Van Gaal and Mourinho – and made a swift run forward to receive the ball back and slot it into the net. Unmarkable. Unplayable. Not stapled to the left wing and double or triple marked, as the Frenchman has been for the last three or four years under the rigid formations of the previous two managers.
Another case in point was the impressive, if not commanding performances of centre backs Phil Jones and Victor Lindelof in their reversed positions. Van Gaal was always adamant that the left centre back should be left footed, and played Rojo and Blind in that position irrespective of who else might have been available. He also famously declined to bid for players such as Nicolas Otamendi, because they were right footed and he needed a left footer. Mourinho also held this “left footer” theory. Because he didn’t have a left-footed centre back available, he reasoned that Lindelof should take up that position because he was the best technically, and that this technique would allow him to compensate for the fact that he was playing on the wrong side. It all seemed to make sense, but perhaps someone should have simply asked the players which side they wanted to cover, as it seems Solskjaer did. The results were clear to see, with both players looking far more comfortable in the reversed role, Lindelof in the right centre back role he excelled in during the World Cup for Sweden, and Jones in the left centre-back position in which he played the majority of his games alongside Chris Smalling in earlier years.
Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho might have been very astute in a lot of ways, but they lost sight of one very important rule of management. Whether you’re a footballer or a security guard, builder or office worker, you want your boss to have faith in you, to allow you to use your initiative and contribute. It brings out the best in you, it motivates you and it builds team spirit. The over-managing we’ve seen, especially in Van Gaal’s second season and throughout Mourinho’s tenure, has left the players feeling infantilised, their opinions unheard, simply treated as cogs in a machine that had to fulfil a certain role.
Those who tried to demand to be heard, it seems, were punished. Those who failed to follow orders on the pitch were axed, and less talented players who were more obedient were brought in. Van Gaal spent Mondays showing players videos of the mistakes they made, and Mourinho publicly criticised players after poor performances. Most of us have worked for bosses like that and we all know how it feels to go into work in the morning under that black cloud. There has been a lot of criticism of the players’ lack of effort and professionalism since Sir Alex left, and whilst some of it may be justified, you cannot help but think that like all of us, if they had been made to feel that their opinions counted, and had been allowed to express themselves both on and off the pitch, they would have been able to do more to lift the team and get the job done. This, it seems, is what Solskjaer plans to do.
After one good win against a Cardiff side battling relegation, it may be naïve to believe that all United’s problems have been solved simply by empowering the players, but one thing is clear: the over-managing and micro-managing that has endured over the last five years has been a failure, and it is time to get back to basics and play fearless, expressive football. That has to be the foundation upon which everything else is built, and what’s more, it is the Manchester United way.