Each of the post-Ferguson managerial hires at Manchester United attempted to bring a philosophy and agenda to help make the club prosper. The mistake they all made was that the philosophies were their own; be it wing play of Everton circa 2010, death by possession of the Netherlands or defensive counter attacking of Inter Milan circa 2010. These were the philosophies that different managers attempted to parachute into Manchester United, but the mistake each of these managers made was that none of these methods were made for Manchester United, nor did they work at Old Trafford.
In hiring Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Ed Woodward and the Glazer family have hired an (interim) manager ready to play football the Manchester United way. Attacking, marauding football with wide players and quick transitions is the type of football that Manchester United have historically played. Busby’s and Ferguson’s teams played that way, as did even Ron Atkinson’s and Tom Docherty’s. The strange thing is that the players at Solskjaer’s disposal on his arrival, signed by those other managers, were perfectly suited to this style of play.
The appointment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United was a strange move for the Glazer administration at Old Trafford, and one which the fans will hope is a sign of things to come. Since the Glazers took over Manchester United in 2005, they have never embraced the history of the club or the legacies of those belonging to it. For a number of years, the presence of Sir Alex Ferguson and to a lesser extent, David Gill, masked what was the Glazers’ attempts to recreate Manchester United as a brand, an entity, a corporate powerhouse.
The days of Nobby Stiles coaching the youth team seemed long gone. That type of appointment was now disregarded as inept or backwards thinking. A product of jobs for the boys that didn’t fit the Wall Street mould on which Manchester United were now based. No longer were appointments made based on someone’s past link to a club, it was a cold, calculated decision based on their perceived ability for the position. On paper, it seems like good business, but in practice it did not work so well.
While still manager of Manchester United, Alex Ferguson praised Bayern Munich and their ability to seamlessly assimilate ex-players into management roles in the football club following their retirement. It created a continuity and a Bayern identity which would be upheld no matter what. It is not something which has ever happened at Manchester United. Such an identity is important, and it has helped the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid – similar size clubs to Manchester United – survive crises like United’s of the past five seasons without the same level of trauma.
The most obvious example of a failure of continuity at Old Trafford was when David Moyes was appointed, and he allowed Mike Phelan and Rene Meulensteen to leave after many successful years coaching the Manchester United championship winning sides. Phelan and Meulensteen were not household names, but they were respected coaches at Manchester United who had gained the trust of both Alex Ferguson and the players. That Phelan and Meulensteen were replaced by Steve Round and Phil Neville — coaches of sixth placed Everton — was a strange choice, and one which failed to win over the players.
You could argue that Phil Neville knew Manchester United life, but he was a rookie coach a decade removed from playing for Manchester United at that point.
Then again, maybe there’s an argument that continuity isn’t all it is cracked up to be. Ed Woodward might point to the situation at Bayern Munich where ex-players are involved in boardroom roles, yet come into the press at every opportunity to question the manager and his methods. Woodward has had a situation however in the past where respected ex-players such as Paul Scholes and Gary Neville are on the outside doing this anyway, and it is equally damaging.
If you look at the Barcelona model, they have kept a management structure in place since 2008 which has seen the team evolve numerous times, with a variety of different coaches that understood the manner in which Barcelona is run. The likes of Tito Vilanova and Luis Enrique have taken the helm at the club and led them to stellar success despite not being huge successes elsewhere. It demonstrates that sometimes understanding a club and its legacy are more important than excellent CVs.
There are many reasons why David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal and José Mourinho did not work at Manchester United. You could argue that Van Gaal and Mourinho were both several years past their best when they got the biggest job in English football. But equally, they attempted to impart philosophies upon Manchester United that did not suit the club. It is easy to mock West Ham United in the way Sam Allardyce once did about the West Ham Way, but when Manchester United are playing as outstandingly as they are at present, the Manchester United way is easily identifiable.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may not be the tactical genius that Manchester United have been looking for. What he has brought however is an understanding of Manchester United are all about. It’s more than just his hybrid Norwegian-Manchester accent. It’s more than just having lined up for the club and scored the winning goal in the Champions League final. Solskjaer knows the club. Like Michael Carrick, Nicky Butt and Mike Phelan, it’s important to have people who know the club and what representing that badge feels like.
The Glazers have never embraced the history of Manchester United previously, but we can hope the appointment of Solskjaer heralds a new era where the old boys’ club isn’t seen in the pejorative sense that it once was, and the legends of Manchester United have a say in the running of the club, rather than corporate money men who ultimately know nothing about football.