Sensible Soccer director Dave Horrocks gave us some insight into what may be going on at Manchester United following the appointment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and what the current coaching quartet may bring to the table in this startling turnaround. On Solskjaer’s team at United is UCFB’s Mike Phelan, who Horrocks has worked with on a number of occasion, as well as up and coming United coach Kieran McKenna…

Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer appear more of a revelation as time passes by. Following last week’s defeat to PSG, there were rumblings of the wheels having come off and the extended honeymoon being over, but how premature we all were. Let’s be fair on the face of it I’m not sure any credible football person really believed post David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho that Manchester United were are anywhere near being a credible Champions League force. However, what a way to bounce back at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup. The Bridge hasn’t been the best of hunting grounds for the Reds, even in the Ferguson era, yet United cruised through the tie like a classic car on a demonstration circuit through the streets of Monaco.

Elite performance is quite literally a cocktail of components, or a kitchen with a multitude of ingredients, and the trick is getting the dose or balance right. I think most coaches in professional sport know all the buzz words and concepts; it’s the putting it together to cook the dish where many fail and others succeed. People, technology, learning, humility, drive, risk, standards, professionalism, process, belief, culture, evidence and so on are all just some of the concepts banded about in performance circles. But what do they mean? And more importantly, what do they look like? I’ll give you a brief synopsis of what might be going on at Manchester United right now, and what each individual may be bringing to the table.

Mike Phelan

Mike is unique in Manchester United’s history – past and present. He has played for, coached and been assistant manager at the football club, and has a vast amount of the Sir Alex Ferguson way stored and applicable in that wily old mind of his. One of the most important credentials I see from Phelan in this current set up is the person and the associated human interaction he brings. I’ve known Mike a while; he is a genuine guy and he has time for everyone, I can’t ever recall ever seeing him without a smile on his face and he always greets people with an upbeat, positive statement with the body language to compliment it. He’s quite literally a bundle of energy and positivity.

Mike Phelan delivers a coaching masterclass to UCFB students in 2018.

Mike is a football addict. I’ve never known anyone not only watch, but analyse, in depth the minutiae of as many games or individual performances as he does in top level football. He’s not restricted to that either; he watches youth and reserve games and even coaches grass roots football in his spare time. He is quite literally football mad, but football mad with a 100% positive and front foot attitude in terms of the lens he sees performances and people through. If there ever was a natural born educator and facilitator, Mike is your man. One look into the technical area, or better still, a trained camera, and you will see real time the amount of times this vast footballing brain is called upon by the other three. Mike really is the wise old owl of Manchester United, and at only 55 years of age there is a lot more mileage to come from this club legend as United drive on over the next 10-15 years. Releasing him for a second time from the club following the post-Ferguson debacle would be the biggest mistake the Manchester United board could ever make.

Kieran McKenna 

Kieran McKenna is a young man I first met when he was a youth coach at Tottenham Hotspur at a conference in London, doing an innovative presentation on the combination of medicine, sports science and data analytics being integrated into the coaching process. He sought me out having realised I’d completed a PhD on Manchester United and we had an interesting chat on the future of coaching and performance. Once again, an instantly energetic and humble human being with a thirst for knowledge. We met again when I was delivering UEFA Pro Licence cognitive and decision making education for the 2018 cohort, and no surprise he quizzed and pushed me to the nth degree once more. He then proceeded to have his lunch with me as opposed to other arguably bigger name coaches in the room. He is a genuine man with an insatiable thirst for learning and progression and the bravery to seek out something different.  A Mourinho appointment, McKenna has rightly been retained on the staff and offers key input for Manchester United going forward, and in particular coaching methods for the generation Z football player.
 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer  

I’m only meeting Ole for the first time this week, so at this point can only shed light through analysis of the public persona. I think his history speaks for itself; when you listen to or read any interviews from past teammates, managers and coaches Ole is portrayed as once again a humble man but a man with an insatiable work ethic and desire to get better. He appears inventive and risk oriented in both his due diligence and applied approach, along with utilising an evidence based approach to his advantage as he prepares for each game. There were testimonies from his own players with regard to the extensive work carried out on the system and approach to face Tottenham in January during their training camp in Dubai, and I dare say the same happened this week in a different positive and process focussed solution for Chelsea. There were two very tough away fixtures from which United came away with not only a good result but in different ways and with different line ups. I think this offers solid evidence that the manager is capable of taking on varied challenges, dealing with whatever circumstance he is faced with and having the focus and knowledge of how to win in differing environments.

Solskjaer shares a joke with Alexis Sanchez.

Players have also been very public and vocal in describing the personal time he has spent with them on improving their individual game, most notably Marcus Rashford with regard to finishing, Anthony Martial with regard to his all round game, and Romelu Lukaku in terms of detailed personal analysis. While Solskjaer is clearly a man of detail, adaptability and evidence based process, he in turn possesses the necessary devil of risk which is an essential component of all uber elite performers. The caretaker and incumbent could well be the masterstroke and legacy of Ed Woodward’s reign. While repeatedly posting admirable business and commercial results, Woodward has yet to come up trumps on the football side. The very business and listed operation he presides over in this modern day was after all borne of the on pitch achievements of Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson. Longer term, the worry from The City may be that without such performance sustenance the company as an holistic entity will face increasing challenge and pressure from their competitors in commercial marketplaces. Solskjaer and his team could well be Woodward’s saviour.
 

Michael Carrick 

Carrick is the epitome of professionalism in both his life and in his work. He played 316 games for Manchester United, has played with many if not most of the current squad, and won everything United aspire to win again in his very recent past. Carrick can be seen taking training in much of the social media and videos that go out from Carrington, is very hands on pre-match at whichever stadium the United roadshow rolls into, and is creeping ever more prominently into that technical area on a match day. Michael can sense, smell and feel exactly what the modern player is experiencing in the moment in the white-hot cauldron of competitive top level football and this type of cognition is an invaluable cog in the wheel of real time performance for this current squad of players. Off the field take a look at The Michael Carrick Foundation and you’ll get a measure of the man. A family man, a caring man, an inspirational man and a grounded individual with a balanced outlook and awareness on life and the wider world. Having Carrick on the current staff is a highly commendable future planning and business protection protocol, something United have fallen foul of in recent years.

Paul Pogba celebrates with Michael Carrick following the FA Cup win over Chelsea.

The Culture 

Culture has varied definitions, but in general speak and from a football perspective culture represents the customs and social behaviour of a group. This is something that has changed in Soskjaer’s tenure, and thanks to him it is now a modern manifestation of The Manchester United Way. There are few clubs who have what traditionalists call “a way”. Barcelona and Ajax spring to mind, and the fact is that United had lost theirs. Under the stewardship of Solskjaer and his trusted three lieutenants this “way” is coming back. It is coming back in an evolved guise which is key in a progressive world, yet it is founded in the bedrock of something that is theirs (Manchester United’s) and in something that evidence tells us works.

While the board continue to make overtures of due diligence and processes being carried out with regard to the longer-term future of Manchester United, one would hope that the current short-term operation is under serious consideration. In its current guise will it return the halcyon days? No, I’m not sure it will, but given the support and license to evolve within a Manchester United borne evidence-based framework, what one sees at Barcelona in particular would suggest that the answers may well be growing in United’s own back yard. After all, regularly winning their domestic league at a canter and being a seriously threatening Champions League force is the next stop in the journey.

The original article ‘Modern Love and the Manchester United Way’ appeared here.