When Olé Gunnar Solskjaer first took over as caretaker manager of Manchester United, it was generally accepted that he faced some major problems. First, he had inherited a crisis in central defence that could only be solved by the purchase of at least one world class centre back. Second, he’d inherited a squad that was generally weak in most areas and which needed a complete overhaul if it were to compete again for major honours. And third, that the stars that were capable of shining for United were all making noises about moving on, refusing to sign new contracts and seeming to have lost all motivation to play for the club.
Fast forward to 7.55pm on a miserable Saturday night in Wolverhampton, three months to the day since Solskjaer took control of the Old Trafford Club. Centre backs Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof walked confidently onto the pitch, having defied all critics and been almost flawless over the previous few games. The defensive crisis seemed to have been solved, so much so that according to reports, there are no centre backs on the summer shopping list that Solskjaer has presented to Ed Woodward. Also taking the field were (arguably) one of the world’s best midfielders, one of the world’s best left wingers and one of the most sought-after young forwards on the planet. Contracts had been signed, team spirit was overflowing and there was a renewed pride and sense of fighting for the badge that we had not seen since the day Sir Alex Ferguson retired.
Just under two hours later, we were all left scratching our heads, wondering what had just happened. Had we been dreaming? It was like the old Robert de Niro film “Awakenings”, where a guy who’d been in a coma for many years came out of it and seemed to be himself again, only to go back into it again a few weeks later.
But we had not been dreaming.
This defence really is better than we gave it credit for, the squad is stronger and more capable than anyone had believed, and this group of players are as committed to the badge as any other squad in the Premier League. If nothing else, the last three months have proven all of these things to be true. But now that the honeymoon period is over, it is clear that there still remains one big problem that the Solskjaer has to overcome at Manchester United to bring success back to the club, and that is a total lack of consistency.
Right now, less than two weeks since United’s historic win in Paris, there are not many Manchester United fans who feel remotely confident that their side will progress beyond Barcelona in the Champions League Quarter Final. And yet, close your eyes and imagine Pogba, Martial, Rashford, De Gea and yes, even Smalling and Lindelof, each playing their very best football, consistently, over the two legs against the Catalans. Who would bet against them pulling off another upset? The trouble is, you can see it maybe happening once, but not twice.
We expect to get pretty consistent performances out of Young and Shaw, Lingard and to some degree from Matic and Herrera (although not against Wolves). But the form of these other six – and that of Romelu Lukaku – is unpredictable, and therein lies Olé’s problem: what can he do to help them find that consistency and produce the goods when it matters?
Sports psychologists believe that there are four reasons for a lack of consistency: inconsistent preparation, lack of desire, lack of confidence and lack of mental toughness. You would like to think that the coaches ensure that the players prepare for each game in a consistent way, and the jubilant scenes after the PSG win showed the world that the hunger is there for all to see. So, if we can rule out the first two, we are left with a lack of confidence and a lack of mental toughness as the most likely reasons for these players’ inconsistency.
Confidence is probably partly to blame. Van Gaal and Mourinho believed in the stick rather than the carrot, naming and shaming players who had under-performed, in the case of Van Gaal, showing videos, every Monday, of the mistakes they had made and hauling players off at or before half time because of an error. Four years of that kind of regime would knock the confidence of most players, and it might take quite a while before that ghost is fully exorcised.
But Pogba? Could Pogba, the winner of four Scudettos, the World Cup and once the world’s most expensive footballer, seriously be lacking in confidence? It seems unlikely. But mental toughness is another question. Mental toughness is that ability, when things just aren’t working quite right, to find another gear, to stay positive, to make things happen and to turn, say, a bad first half into a worldly second half. It is the opposite of the bowed head, or the shrugging shoulder, or the droopy bottom lip when things aren’t quite working out according to plan. A lack of this toughness is, for me, the most likely explanation for the unpredictable performances of not just Pogba, but Martial, Rashford and Lukaku as well.
It isn’t something that is easily solved unless the players in question acknowledge the problem and are willing to work with the club’s psychologists on a regular basis. And until it is solved, Pogba is not the right man for the captain’s armband, because if the captain’s head goes down too easily, it will quickly transmit to the rest of the team as well. For the future, perhaps on the top of Olé’s shopping list should be a Roy Keane or Steve Bruce type player, who can drag his mentally un-tough team-mates off the floor and kick them up the backside when they need it. Then, and only then, Manchester United really could be a force to be reckoned with.