About a year ago Manchester United left Old Trafford in defeat. Spanish side Sevilla had come in and taken a 2-1 victory to secure passage to the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League. Then manager José Mourinho took on the press just a few days later, defending his job performance and railing against his squad for lack of quality and experience in competing at the highest level.
“Football heritage” was the trendy term coined by the Special One that day, and the United faithful collectively groaned. It was only beginning to be realized that Mourinho and his squad weren’t exactly on the best of terms after what seemed to be a genuinely healthy first year of growth. The frustration with defensive football, particularly against top opponents, or at Old Trafford in general, was boiling to the point of actual conflict. Mourinho’s management of conflict in the past indicated that the unraveling of the dressing room was soon to follow, and that’s exactly what happened. The benching of Anthony Martial, a year long and often public quarrel with Paul Pogba, contract holdouts from key players, and press conference meltdowns only seemed to confirm what everyone believed was happening. It wasn’t fake news; Mourinho was failing on and off the pitch.
It’s not hard to look at the difference in performances between Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Mourinho to realize the obvious tactical changes have worked, but Solskjaer’s squad management has been even more impressive. Players publicly stating how happy they are can actually cause alarm sometimes, but it’s clearly genuine when nearly everyone in the team is backing Ole after the run they’ve been on. The once disgruntled leaders are happy now too, and it’s showing in their game.
The level that Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba are playing at is exactly what United fans were hoping from Mourinho by this point in his career. They’ve responded well to the changes Solskjaer has implemented after struggling to even get in the team some weeks under Mourinho. The “Special One” appeared to have split the dressing room partly for his treatment of players, and Pogba in particular was targeted near the end. Benched for key fixtures, including Arsenal and Liverpool, he sulked on the bench while United’s dreadful midfield display continued without him. He was allegedly called a “virus” by Mourinho in a dressing room spat before an ugly 2-2 draw at relegation threatened Southampton. Mourinho also had public disputes with agents of players, and had no problem naming names when it came to a poor performance that clearly came down to tactical approach.
Hindsight is 20/20, and any doubts that it was the player and not the manager have been put to bed since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s arrival. Suddenly United weren’t a group of overpaid, whining children. Marcus Rashford is showing he is as good as everyone thought he could be, Romelu Lukaku is rediscovering his confidence, and Pogba is worth the big fee Juventus charged. Solskjaer’s positivity and focus on the development of players has allowed the squad freedom to express themselves, a tactic used by Sir Alex Ferguson. Chris Smalling said recently that Solskjaer has done more than just put an arm around the players, and that he is capable of whipping out the hairdryer as well. But the positive reactions from the players would suggest that he doesn’t cross the line, or hasn’t yet, and that is straight from the Ferguson manual as well.
In fact, it would be fair to point out, Ferguson had his share of ugly moments as a manager as well. He wouldn’t shy away from criticizing his team, being combative with the press, or letting the best player in the team have the hairdryer treatment. The difference that sets him apart from Mourinho is that he was an expert at reading when to use which methods as a manager. Ferguson knew that Wayne Rooney would respond to being called out, but Nani wouldn’t. He understood that changes in mentality across generations would require adjustment, and he adapted to keep winning with a younger squad. Ferguson is the greatest manager of all time because throughout his career he recognized and adapted to what he needed to do to get the best out of his players for more than two decades. José Mourinho can’t even do that for more than two years.
Solskjaer was not only on the receiving end of Ferguson’s management, but in his years on the bench recovering from injury he gained a new perspective of it. He witnessed the transition from his late 1990s corps to the younger generation built around Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, and veterans Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, and Gary Neville. Solskjaer returned to the pitch for one last season, a Premier League winning season, and then took on a coaching role within the club. He was around the club for nearly 15 years before moving on to Molde. He’s a pupil of Ferguson and Manchester United, which is something that hasn’t been tried by Ed Woodward and the board since Ferguson’s retirement.
The Manchester United Way may not have one single definition, as it means something different to every fan, but the general consensus is that David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal, and José Mourinho weren’t in line with said “way.” David Moyes basically cleared house and brought Everton with him, something that caused countless problems; with the squad, the management of talent, Ferguson’s veteran players, and especially the team’s overall approach tactically. Louis Van Gaal was more meticulous, keeping Ryan Giggs on as his trusted assistant, and by all indications was respected by the players. However, the style of football Van Gaal introduced didn’t lead to goals, despite having some impressive attacking talent in the side. Finally, José Mourinho... surely that doesn’t need to be discussed further.
The Manchester United Way has been dismissed by Fergie’s successors, each of whom has tried to make their own way the United way, but Solskjaer has succeeded by doing the opposite and embracing his experiences at the club. He hasn’t tried and failed to make it his own, because his way is rooted in his passion for the club. He’s answering the call to fix a club he loves, and in doing so has shown a sincerity and an understanding of the team that the three managers who came before him lacked. He just understands the club and the players better, and has shown that United don’t need to move on from the “Manchester United way,” but rather embrace it.