Manchester United of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era have failed on a number of fronts, but perhaps the most fundamental has been that of identity. Anachronistic as that may sound, in the time since their figurehead manager retired in 2013, Manchester United — one of the largest sports teams in the world — have seemed wholly unsure of who they are as a sports team. Clearly a world leader – without question they knew that - but beyond this and the fact that the club was a commercial monster, it seemed that Manchester United were in some sense rudderless.
Ferguson had not been a man for philosophies, and pragmatism had been his mantra. Manchester United’s identity therefore was interwoven with Ferguson, truly a man for all seasons. Ferguson was the type of man who did not sell his soul to any ideal, because he ultimately knew that most ideals have a shelf life and he might soon need a new one. It was this ability to adapt and change that saw Ferguson adapt and shelve his dual winger approach of the nineties and later castigate Ruud Van Nistelrooy for a more mobile front pairing in the mid-2000s.
In replacing Alex Ferguson, Manchester United felt they were opting for a similar manager in David Moyes. Manchester United’s identity as a team was not in need of being addressed. Moyes would be managing Ferguson’s team largely, and therefore his similarly Scottish pragmatic outlook would meld well.
The crown didn’t sit comfortably on Moyes, and there was that ever-growing feeling that the club was too big for him. Moyes was fired and ever since, Manchester United have jumped backwards and forwards in an attempt to superimpose the identity of other teams onto United’s exoskeleton.
Van Gaal and his attempt to make Manchester United into Ajax 1995 or Barcelona 2000 came next. It was a reactive move and one which didn’t fit the culture of the club. Philosophies change. Ferguson might have sought to apply some of the genius of Ajax 1995 into his own team at the time were he not already holding a winning lottery ticket. But twenty years later is too late to try and recapture that.
Van Gaal’s reign at Manchester United was guilty of trying to copy other clubs rather than appreciating who Manchester United actually were. The problem was that by the time Van Gaal was leaving, he had filled the club with players like Morgan Schneiderlin, Memphis Depay, and Daley Blind. Players suited to those outdated Ajax models, but ones greatly lost in Manchester. Mourinho was brought in and now Manchester United aspired to be like Chelsea 2005 or Inter 2010. It was reactive thinking again, trying to recapture an old idea and see if it could still work at Manchester United in a new decade.
To the uninitiated, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s appointment was a desperate Hail Mary. The managers with brilliant CVs had failed and Manchester United were now giving up. That once great player who had failed as a manager at Cardiff. But Solskjaer’s appointment was the culmination of a number of different factors.
Solskjaer was a fundamental part of Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson, and understood what it meant to represent the club.
That in itself cannot be underestimated. The appointment of Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid, ridiculed as an attempt to ape Pep Guardiola at Barcelona with an inexperienced manager whose most noteworthy career moment since 2006 had been detailed in Diego Torres’ Mourinho book when he dismissed Mourinho’s tactics in front of the Madrid team and told them to play with heart. Such things might be banal clichés, but coming from a legend like Zidane, they hold more gravitas.
The appointment of Zidane at Madrid also gets to another issue: The notion that strong structures within a club – such as having an identity - can shield a team from periods of chaos, similar to what Manchester United experienced in the post-Ferguson era.
Since 2008, FC Barcelona have made a number of ‘in-house’ appointments for their manager. Ex-players chosen not so much for their success elsewhere but because they knew the way the club worked. Guardiola, Tito Vilanova, Luis Enrique, Ernesto Valverde. Luis Enrique had been far from successful in his most recent stint as Roma manager, yet at Barcelona, he brought them the treble. Barcelona traversed numerous managerial appointments while also continuing to be successful.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s appointment grasps these ideals. That success with other clubs and at other times is largely meaningless when it comes to managing a behemoth like Manchester United. That managers with philosophies are well and fine, but pragmatism is important too because good managers often have to adapt to make their team thrive. Good managers not overly commit to any ideal, because they ultimately know that most ideals have a shelf life and they might soon need a new one. The role of the manager is still greatly important, but at elite clubs such as Manchester United, Barcelona and Real Madrid, there is a culture to be understood and embraced by those in the hot seat. Perhaps the greatest success is found in waiting for the manager who can successfully harness the true identity of the club.