The Secret to Ole's Success?
On the 18th of December 2018 Manchester United had accumulated 26 points in 17 games, their worst tally in Premier league history at that stage. Seven days later with a new manager in charge they began a five game winning streak in which they scored 16 goal in the process.
Fans, pundits and anyone else interested witnessed a squad of players transforming in 7 days. They went from playing well beneath their level of ability to hitting their top level with consistency.
Let's breathe that in for a second, put yourself in the players position. You practice technical aspects of the game almost everyday of your life for 10-25 years. In the words of Stephen Gerrard 'you become obsessed', 'you sacrifice your life' to become a professional athlete. You overcome odds similar to those of getting hit by a meteorite to set foot on the big stage but all that effort is subject to a hidden clause. It states: your maximum performance level and ability to progress will will be reduced by up to 66% if you and the manager are involved in a on-going dispute. This clause will be removed with immediate effect in the event the manager leaves the club.
Does this make logical sense?
On the surface it does because the manager is the only thing that has changed but before we decide let's consider another man's view. A player who has an uncompromising attitude towards outside circumstances or 'excuses' as he refers to them.
Roy Keane won 19 trophies during his playing career and his high level of competency was also noticeable in its consistency. Now a manager, coach and pundit he regularly points out uncomfortable truths, many of which are hard to swallow for people in the game. Referring to United's dramatic change of form in just 7 days, Roy points the finger of blame towards the players.
"The players got away with murder. They hide behind the manager. They have thrown him under the bus."
"Whatever has gone on at the club, when you go on the pitch - particularly at a big club like United - you go out and give your all, no excuses.
"This idea that these players are upset... it is not just United, but the modern player. They are not just weak players, but are very weak human beings. You cannot say a word to them.
Roy himself has said previously that the 'weakness' is not intentional and I want to be clear on the importance of that. Weakness is not useful term to assist changes in players although for the right person it could evoke the desired change, subject to the player wanting to change of course. Because players aren't intentionally underperforming, my instinct is to look closely at the mechanism for change, to find what works every time but again that only comes with cooperation.
So did this shift in gears come from a secret that Solskjaer possesses or is this fluctuation down to player weakness? It's a question that when understood will save football clubs millions of pounds in severance.
The next view to consider is Danny Higginbotham's. He highlighted on Sky Sports the changes in tactics Solskjaer has implemented. Keeping Rashford more central, the fullbacks pushing on with the two sitting midfielders offering protection giving Pogba license to attack more freely. He also mentioned that every striker he had played with in his career had been the biggest confidence player at the club. This is another piece of the puzzle that points towards the change in management.
So who is right?
Is Keane's view that the players of this generation are weak and these players folded under Mourinho's critical style or was it the tactical improvements Danny mentioned that have bought about change.
To me Ole's tactics have had an impact but implementing those tactics effectively was only made possible with the vast improvement in the performance of the players. So to me the uncomfortable truth is...it was all down to the players. The twist is that knowing this fact is where Ole's secret begins to carry weight.
During Ole's time at Manchester United he will recall the leadership and characters that were capable of performing in challenging times, their levels of performance remained consistent. Keane recollects this period, "I was very lucky with the dressing room I was in. There were good men, good leaders and characters, but that is in shortage in the game now.
"It would not have happened in our dressing room. We would not have tolerated lads not putting a shift in."
Roy also went on to correctly to predict the up turn in results that followed Solskjaer's appointment.
Solskjaer is a "good fit"
"The beauty for Ole is it is a case of getting these lads back on side and that includes Pogba and whatever has gone on in the past you have to move on," he said.
"Ole will get that feel-good factor back, Mike Phelan back in is a good move, Ole will be popular around the club and I think getting the players back on side will be the easiest part of the job.
"They wanted a change and that is easy for Ole, you'd expect him to win the next few games, try and close the gap on the top teams, go on an FA Cup run and try and beat Paris St-Germain [in the Champions League].
"It is a big challenge ahead, but in the short term I expect the players to react and win the next few matches they should be winning."
"But Ole will want to get the first game out of the way, a victory under his belt and no doubt a lot will be happy to see him back at the club, as he is such a decent guy."
Keane has also suggested that the long term performance levels of these players are at risk as history may repeat itself when other challenges are presented. I agree, but if Ole's secret of handling the players with genuine intent, assisting them with a long-term view while enjoying the game, then he gives them the best chance to overcome the challenges.
He will act as a catalyst that encourages players to unlock the qualities that appeared to desert them at the end of Mourinho's reign.
The secret Ole has is that he knew on entry that the minds of these young men were impacting their performance, he took strides to build relationships quickly and spent time analysing players. He did that with players, he sat with Lukaku as they looked at opportunities to improve together. Lukaku has clearly benefitted already from these conversations, something he has acknowledged himself. Operating as a manager with this kind of selfless intention is admired globally, it's hard to miss as it remains a rare quality.
With the stresses and strains the players experienced under Mourinho already dissipating on Ole's arrival. It's clear the players comprehensively assigned their stresses to Ole's predecessor so when José left they automatically took ownership again of their performance. Ole was therefore already at an advantage as he took charge of a squad who didn't see him as the source of their drop in form, he is someone I think they see as having a genuine desire to improve them and someone who values enjoying football. In summary, this is how their performance levels changed so dramatically in a week.
Spurs are next up, Ole's secret will be tested, if Manchester United win he will go into the history books for having the most successful ever start as a United manager, over-hauling Sir Matt Busby’s record of winning his first five matches in charge.
We wish him well and wish you well!
Perform, Improve, Enjoy.
*Images sourced from Sky Sports, Reddevils xi instagram, quotes from BBC.