It’s the most wonderful time of the year. People are joyous, cheerful and singing. There’s a happiness around that you don’t normally experience. Good will to all. Except the Scousers of course. It’s a feel-good time and it really feels like Christmas. That wondrous feeling, that joyousness is not to do with Christmas this year, though it does feel miraculous. It’s the joy that comes with optimism.
It’s an optimism that you feel at the start of every season, not the one you feel in December, but things are now different in Manchester.
Hope springs anew, and Manchester United have that preseason optimism in December since José Mourinho was sacked. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is the interim replacement and what was once dour, negative and depressing to watch is suddenly infused with hope and dreams for what might come. Solskjaer brings a ray of hope to the United fans, not for what he brings as a coach, but for what the players are now allowed to bring.
Against Cardiff on Saturday, Manchester United espoused a new attacking approach; with wing backs playing high up the pitch, a marauding front three and the ball playing Victor Lindelöf playing out of defence in a manner strangely reminiscent of Ricardo Carvalho under Mourinho at Chelsea.
The fans have revelled in the Norwegian’s appointment, not least because it brings an end to Mourinho and his tendency to talk about how Mourinho the manager was special. Solskjaer, in contrast, has gone to great lengths to express why Manchester United the club, and not the manager, is special.
That Solskjaer would be appointed as interim manager reveals a number of things. Firstly, it implies that the club is determined to appoint his successor in a composed and reasoned fashion. That the club will not rush into appointing the first available person. Secondly, it implies that perhaps tradition is important. It implies that boardroom level at Old Trafford are finally looking beyond the brightest, shiniest object available and going for that.
Speaking on Off The Ball this week, Manchester journalist Andy Mitten spoke of the continued disparity in transfer strategies between Manchester United and Manchester City; that agents are aware that City have focused, long term goals whereas Manchester United are still trying to sign the biggest names in the game. The Mourinho appointment was one which followed this pattern, as did the signings of the likes of Falcao and Angel di Maria, top players but not ones which fit the style of Manchester United.
The appointment of Solskjaer bucks that trend. Perhaps Solskjaer is unheralded, but it is not one without precedent. Barcelona have succeeded Pep Guardiola in appointing ex-players such as Tito Vilanova and Luis Enrique, managers with less than stellar careers prior to their arrival in the Camp Nou. Luis Enrique guided Barcelona to a treble in 2015, though it could be argued that Luis Enrique had a vastly different squad to the one currently in Manchester and the structures were in place to allow him to succeed, whereas Manchester United still lack that structure.
Fans will hope that Solskjaer has learned the important lessons of management that some of his teammates never did. Solskjaer stated this week that he learned a lot from Alex Ferguson and fans should hope that he takes more nuance from Ferguson’s managerial styling than one of his more renowned teammates, Roy Keane.
Keane saw the brutish, aggressive element of Ferguson’s managerial style – evident for all to see at times – but never grasped the complexity of the tight rope Ferguson walked; the patience, the charm and everyman quality that Ferguson held in abundance which allowed him to succeed for so long. As a player, Keane himself took great minding and perhaps it was the kid gloves with which Ferguson often treated him that blinkered his perception of Ferguson’s Midas touch.
Solskjaer is a different temperament to Keane and given his short term reign, is unlikely to proceed in a similar manner in management. It was clear from the game against Cardiff on Saturday that Solskjaer intends to lift the mood in the Manchester United dressing room and bring positivity to the job, positivity that has arguably been absent since Ferguson’s reign ended. David Moyes spoke of aspiring to the level of the 2014 Liverpool team while Louis Van Gaal’s relentless tactical rigour bored the players. A positive approach from Solskjaer, one which for the first time in years promotes the notion of Manchester United players expressing themselves is bound to be welcome.
It’s an exciting, yet scary time in Manchester. For the first time in years we are about to see what these Manchester United players are really made of. Once and for all; beyond who the manager is or the handbrake tactics, the Manchester United players now know the onus is upon them. It’ll be the second half at Stamford Bridge all season long.
That in itself is exciting and invigorating for the fans. The time for excuses is well and truly over.
Let’s see what our guys are made of.