Is there a Manchester United way?
When FourFourTwo magazine came out with its 100 Greatest Managers issue for the month of May 2020, the top 10 read: Alex Ferguson, Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff, Bill Shankly, Pep Guardiola, Arrigo Sacchi, Matt Busby, Helenio Herrera, Ernst Happel, and Valeriy Lobanovskyi.
Ferguson and Busby were the two representatives of Manchester United on this list but that wasn’t the only facet that set them apart from the others. The other distinguished names on the list were innovators.
Shankly is an interesting one. He wasn’t an innovator per se but he started the boot-room at Liverpool. As tales go, the boot-room was a football symposium where enlightened discussions were held on the club’s philosophies, ethos, and tactics to overcome its European rivals. Even opposition managers were invited to contribute to discussions on the game.
Michels and Happel spearheaded the total football revolution in the late ‘60s. Cruyff and Sacchi expounded on the idea before Guardiola perfected it. Herrera sat on the other end of the spectrum by popularizing Italian Catenaccio. Valeriy Lobanovskyi gave football the scientific method. They were all trailblazers, especially in a tactical sense.
This isn’t to suggest that Manchester United and its two elders haven’t impacted the game outside the corners of Old Trafford. The city of Manchester is the best example of how provincial towns and cities have come to dominate football for over a century.
Busby and his Babes were pivotal in enabling English clubs to participate in European competitions. Busby’s United would go on to become the first English side to lift the European Cup. Ferguson’s lessons in leadership are taught in Ivy League institutions today. The success of these omnipotent figureheads created the umbrella term, “The Manchester United Way.”
However, “The Manchester United Way” has never been a tactical identity, nor was it molded in a sacred meeting place like the boot-room or Viennese coffee houses in the ‘20s and ‘30s. It isn’t part of the curriculum in academic sanctuaries like Italy’s Coverciano or Germany’s Hennes-Weisweiler Academy.
This is important when discussing the current Manchester United because its manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would tell you otherwise. He believes in this amorphous construct with the religious zeal of its many fans around the world.
It’s not just Solskjaer or his former teammates that allude to this. Other pundits when describing United’s current talisman, Bruno Fernandes, often label him “a Manchester United player.” It doesn’t matter if it exists. Many United fans don’t believe it does either but it’s important to find out what these lose terms are and if there’s a way to demystify them.
Jonathan Wilson, in one of his recent columns for the Guardian, highlighted United’s peculiar history with tactics from the days of Busby to Solskjaer.
Tactics and Tactical Identity
Gary Neville in his autobiography “Red” had this say about Manchester United’s preparations for the Champions League semi-final tie against Barcelona in the 2007/08 season. He was particularly complimentary of United’s assistant coach at the time, Carlos Queiroz.
Did United use tactics over the two legs? The answer is a categorical “yes.” Was that United’s tactical identity? No; however, this approach is synonymous with that United side. Over the two legs, there were some fine performances, especially from the likes of Park Ji-sung, Patrice Evra, and Wes Brown.
Neville had more insight.
Despite devising the tactics to get the most out of Cristiano Ronaldo, United didn’t really get him into the game over 180 minutes. This was not a system that United were used to employing and tactics are rarely executed to perfection, anyway.
This wasn’t the great Barcelona side either. They were sandwiched between an excellent side and one that was arguably the greatest club side of all time. In the end, Paul Scholes scored one of the greatest goals in United’s history to take it to the home straight.
This wasn’t too dissimilar to what United attempted against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last week and most of the Big Six sides this season. There will, of course, be a few variations in the approach. In the game at the Bridge, United looked to win the ball back a little higher but the intention was to create a cagey game that relied on moments that the likes of Scholes, Ronaldo, and Wayne Rooney regularly pulled off in big knockout ties.
This became a hallmark of Ferguson’s reign, alchemizing superstars with players who could perform specific tactical instructions (for today’s United: Dan James and Scott McTominay) in the bigger games. This gave United a flexible identity, but one that Ferguson himself didn’t always feel content with.
This cagier version of United in European competition came following a 3-2 defeat to Madrid in a famous Champions League quarter-final tie in 2000. It was a frantic game with United creating an abundance of chances. The Madrid manager, Vicente del Bosque, famously referred to United’s “tactical anarchy” post-match. United’s susceptibility to counter attacks led to the appointment of Carlos Queiroz in 2002.
After a few more disappointments in Europe, United’s principles in Europe shifted from ‘create 15 chances and concede five’ to ‘create five and concede one’ for the best part of the decade.
Ferguson, in his 2013 autobiography, admitted that he had to put himself and the fans through hell to gain the result against Barcelona. His goal in the next season was to build something more reminiscent of the Real Madrid side that he saw lifting its fifth European Cup in 1960 as a 19-year-old boy at Hampden Park; a team that won with an attacking approach and would be written about in perpetuity. There was one such team in the Champions League final in Rome the very next year. Unfortunately for Ferguson, they were sitting in the opposition dugout.
It’s strange that for all of his achievements, Ferguson himself felt that this vision never fully crystallized in all those trophy-laden years at United.
In an interview for Issue Nine of the Blizzard magazine with French football journalist, Philippe Auclair, Ferguson was asked about his Aberdeen side. There’s an admission from Ferguson that those closest to him believe the achievements with Aberdeen to be his greatest. From his tone, it seems like Ferguson believed that himself but he did highlight that a club like United brought different challenges.
The Busby Babes were probably the closest to materializing some sort of revolution but the Munich tragedy stole its mythical future away from the football world. One then gets the sense that “The Manchester United Way” is something to aspire to as opposed to something that exists.
Solskjaer was tasked with a restitution job but he needs a revolution
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was hired for a restitution job. Prior to his arrival, the club was in disarray. In a little over two years, he’s almost achieved it. The rebuild is complete and if he were to leave tomorrow, there’d be a bevy of suitors looking to take the hot seat at Old Trafford.
With a year left on his contract, next season will be crucial for him and the board. His time at United is structured like the truncated version of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, known in screenwriting classrooms as the three-act structure. We’ll be heading to the third act in a few months — the resolution.
Some players will be hitting their peak, others will be entering it, new faces will likely join the fray, and some of United’s younglings will be playing understudies. The stars might align. Yet, that might not be enough, because like Ferguson and FourFourTwo’s top 10 list, Solskjaer will be cornered by innovators.
FiveThirtyEight’s Premier League prediction model currently has Manchester City breaking the 90-point-barrier for the third time in four seasons. Just when it looked like Solskjaer could, perhaps, capitalize on an off-year, he was reminded that there’s unlikely to be one for some time. By the time Guardiola calls it a day, he might even top FourFourTwo’s list and seize many of United’s dearest records in the Premier League era for Manchester City.
It’s not just Guardiola, though. If City have an off year, Liverpool and Chelsea with their German revolutionaries will pounce. It’s not just the top clubs, the Premier League is inundated with philosopher-managers. Even former United boss, José Mourinho, was schooled in the tactical periodization training methodology and is the antithesis of any football philosophy – a philosophy in itself.
If we’ve established that “The Manchester United Way” isn’t a tactical identity, the skeptics have a point. Solskjaer, in many ways, is like the centrist politicians that the world has overseen in recent years – Justin Trudeau, Barack Obama, Tony Blair, and Jacinda Ardern, just to name a few. They promise some radical transformation but do little more than manage the status quo.
Coming back to football; Zinedine Zidane, Carlo Ancelotti, Jupp Heynckes, and Luis Enrique are a few managers who’ve had great success in managing the status quo in recent years and Solskjaer can take encouragement from them. Maybe more from Heynckes, because the others have that charismatic spunk about them that maybe the silver-haired foxes lack.
Solskjaer has also seemed reticent to reveal much about his footballing ideas besides hearkening back to what worked in his highly successful career as a player. This may be a consequence of the oppressive intimacy that media figures share with managers; however, he has revealed bits of it when speaking to The Athletic’s Carl Anka recently.
Solskjaer’s been honest with the media, clearly stating that he delegates the training sessions to coaches Kieran McKenna and Michael Carrick. In Carrick, he’s got someone who has worked with pioneers of yesteryear, Mourinho and Louis van Gaal. Their bungling spells should not deflect from what he might’ve picked up as a player and coach.
Fans will need reserves of patience as Solskjaer has requested. He’ll point to Luke Shaw’s resurgence as an example of the success of his methods. His man-management skills have been impressive and remain the most important characteristic for any manager. His compassion for the players has made this side far more likeable than any side post-Ferguson. He insists that there are a few layers left to complete his vision.
Tactical sophistication is the icing on the cake but with so many managers around him capable of baking the perfect cake and adding all manner of toppings to sweeten it further, Solskjaer will need to buy these layers if he can’t make them from scratch. Maybe, we’ll get a souped-up version of “The Manchester United Way” soon.
But maybe it’ll remain only something to aspire to.