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Five things we learned from the new biography of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

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We review Jamie Jackson’s “The Red Apprentice” — the new biography of the Manchester United manager

Southampton v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Adam Davy - Pool/Getty Images

Earlier this month, Jamie Jackson – The Manchester United correspondent for The Guardian released The Red Apprentice: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer: The Making of Manchester United’s Great Hope.

The biography on the Manchester United manager chronicles the period from his humble upbringing in the quaint little town of Kristiansund, Norway to everyone’s favorite year.

The sections of the book that deal with his time at United don’t necessitate much introspection as the boundless abyss of the internet will provide one with most of the details, however, there are some fascinating inferences that can be drawn upon.

Isn’t it too early for a book?

Scoring Manchester United’s most iconic goal and being Manchester United manager are fairly singular experiences, so one can conclude that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s definitely led an interesting life. Most players who are successful for Manchester United do — so a biography isn’t much of a surprise. But the focus of this book is on his career in management, which begs the question — why does a manager who’s always seemingly one loss away from leading the sack race odds have a book on him being the ideal candidate?

“For a manager, no matter the result, at a press conference you need to come out as the winner. One of my hobbies now is to watch press conferences. You can kill yourself in a press conference. It is an important part of your job.”

A certain Glaswegian who has a fondness for red wine and can be found seated in the Old Trafford director’s box today said that.

Jackson alludes to Solskjaer’s popularity with the media (we’re talking the Manchester United correspondents specifically) in the book but he didn’t really have to — a book on him is all the confirmation you need that the media are propping him to be successful at United. It’d also be a fairly risky venture for the writer concerned to be publishing a book when it seemed to the rest of the world that Mauricio Pochettino was one bad result away from being the new boss. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will need time and he will be given time.

Every manager needs allies in the media and Solskjaer seems to have got a few already. However, a Shakespearean betrayal is never too far off the cards – from the media, the players and those above him. His most reliable allies remain his staff.

Manager first – Coach second

Football clubs have seen a discernible shift in their structural hierarchy. We have Directors of Football, head coaches, sporting directors, heads of recruitment, CEOs, and the works. It can all be a little Kafkaesque to the layman. No mention of manager yet.

For a long time, English football only ever saw the manager as the figurehead of a club. But with hands-on owners and football’s exponential growth, one man simply can’t be responsible for all the overarching responsibilities at a club anymore. The role of a Director of Football was formed to act as a buffer between manager and CEO.

Now, Solskjaer has hinted at delegating coaching responsibilities to his staff in his press conferences and there’s some confirmation of this in the book. What’s a little startling here is that he delegated the coaching to Mark Dempsey (now at United) at Molde as well. Most young managers tend to be hands-on initially before slowly fading in the background as time passes on.

So does that mean Solskjaer’s a quasi Director of Football in the vein of Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger? Not quite. Jackson made the time to talk to website Training Ground Guru’s founder Simon Austin. Austin provided some clarity to the role of a Director of Football.

While Solskjaer is responsible for managing the players and his immediate staff, a Director of Football has a far wider purview. Austin cited the example of Norwich’s Stuart Webber who is responsible for nearly 20 departments at the football club. What could these other responsibilities be you wonder?

Well, Webber has actually featured on YouTube’s Off the Ball channel to address them here. And no, this isn’t just limited to transfers and the academy. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer isn’t going to be expected to participate in annual general meetings where the club might talk finances, what improvements can be made to the training ground, developments of a new stand at Old Trafford, the social media department, new sponsorship potential and negotiations with football agents.

The Director of Football is expected to participate in all these functions along with the football functions. Now, Ed Woodward does perform many of these tasks with advisors around him and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has taken many footballing responsibilities beyond the first team but this demarcation between the two is at the heart of what many believe to be problem. There’s no unifier.

Always been analytical

Although he may be hands-off on the training ground, Solskjaer has the final say. Solskjaer’s problem solving as a player are well-documented. There are multiple videos on his love for the Football Manager video game even though he categorically states in the book that managing people brings challenges that the impressive game could never prepare one for.

Sheffield United’s Ollie Norwood gave an example in the book of how Solskjaer would get the players to play in different positions in training as reserves coach — not necessarily to get them to play in those positions in matches but to appreciate what a player in that position would prefer. Former first-team coach René Meulensteen also affirms that Solskjaer was one of his most inquisitive players.

Solskjaer’s tactically astute even though he might not give that impression to many. Solskjaer played at a time when sides using systems that incorporated gegen-pressing and juego de posición (positional play) were the outliers. Today, these styles and the many variants of them have become the norm.

Solskjaer’s performed adequately, but these are valid criticisms. Even Solskjaer’s greatest advocates thought he was only a stop-gap.

He’ll always be in the firing line and he seems to have grasped what the expectations at United are better than the contemporaries that preceded him. This might go a long way to resolving the big mystery that hasn’t been revealed in the book.

Why this former player? Why not Incey, Brucey or Hughesy?

Paul Ince was the most vocal among the former United players on Solskjaer’s appointment. He stated that he could’ve achieved what Solskjaer did as interim manager. He also stated that Mark Hughes or Steve Bruce should’ve been consulted. What Ince doesn’t realize is that comments like that are unlikely to endear him to the many stakeholders at Old Trafford. Many of United’s former players have had disappointing stints as managers and there’s been this dissonance with quite a few, Ince being one of many, since their departure from the club.

Solskjaer’s had his failings at Cardiff as well, but it would also be very uncharacteristic of Solskjaer to make the comments of a similar nature to Ince. In fact, the nature of his departure at Cardiff might’ve actually been seen as positive. The book states that Ole left the club with no ill will towards the notoriously difficult owner Vincent Tan. He has had opportunities to deflect blame but it’s unlikely to occur in his own autobiography or at United. Players won’t have to be worried about being called out publicly either.

Jaap Stam had this to say in 2016 for the Guardian:

It sounds strange, maybe, because I have played with a lot of big players but I never thought: ‘OK, they’re going to go into management,’” he says. “Maybe there was only one, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, because he was always talking about football but I did not have a feeling with the other players.”

This is a motif throughout the book. Solskjaer had been thinking of management from the minute he suffered what turned out to be a career-ending knee injury in 2003. He’d preferred watching football around the continent than having a night out with the other United players.

Solskjaer also seems to have been preparing for a select number of jobs with Molde and Manchester United being two of three. The Norwegian national team being the other.

This goes some way to explaining why the higher ups at United approached him when they could very easily have asked Michael Carrick to steady the ship until one of the high-profile managers became available.

The Great Hope

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer might just be what the title suggests – hope. There wasn’t much to play for in the season after José Mourinho’s sacking. There was after Solskjaer’s arrival. There is some still.