A hero’s return
In the last two months Manchester United have gone from European laughing stock to a team that is genuinely feared by each opponent it faces. On December 18th 2018, Jose Mourinho was sacked as manager after a disappointing run of performances, epitomized by the embarrassing defeat at the hands of arch-rivals Liverpool. Former United legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was appointed until the end of the season and since then the team have won 11 matches, drawn one, and lost one. This is title-winning form. United have beaten Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea away from home – all formidable opponents.
Pundits from all over the world have speculated on what has happened behind the scenes for this dramatic shift in fortune. Common quotes like “he’s put smiles back on the players’ faces” and “he has got the best out of Paul Pogba (widely considered the best player in the team)” are true, but how has he actually done that? Here is what I think is a key change in the way the team is managed.
Has Solskjaer been studying US Navy SEALs?
Decentralized command has been made popular in recent years by the book Extreme Ownership by former US Navy SEAL Officers Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. It is a leadership and management technique whereby more responsibility is placed upon individuals lower in the chain command to achieve success in a particular mission. On the other hand, centralized command (which Mourinho preferred) places the responsibility on one leader to make sure that everybody does their job correctly. In decentralized command, the team is split into several smaller teams, giving the chance for individuals to take more control and find effective solutions themselves. These individuals become empowered by the responsibility, and the resulting sense of importance adds more drive to achieve success in their mission. Any idea that is believed to be their own will be executed with vigor, conviction and wholeheartedness – nobody likes their idea to result in failure.
Mourinho the control freak
“I was thinking for him, when to close inside, when to open, when to press the opponent, I was making every decision for him.”
Mourinho was an egoistic puppet-master while managing at Manchester United. If they won, he would take the credit for masterful strokes of tactical artistry. If they lost, he would simply blame his players for not being good enough to follow his instructions, complaining that he needed more skillful and obedient puppets. The thing that Mourinho failed to understand is that the volumes of instruction and excessive micromanagement he was giving the players was overwhelming and paralyzing them. They played in a confused and fearful manner, unable to see the bigger picture that the overall mission was simply to win a game of football. They were bogged down in whether to attack or defend, press or sit deep, and whether they were in their correct defensive positions. I was alarmed in April 2017 when Mourinho told the press of an example of this excessive micromanagement of left-back Luke Shaw: “I was thinking for him, when to close inside, when to open, when to press the opponent, I was making every decision for him.” Mourinho gave no freedom to his players which came back to bite him – there was no-one else to blame for the defeats because he controlled everything his team did. On top of that, his players took no responsibility for their moves on the field because Mourinho gave them no freedom to find their own solutions. “I just did what you told me to do boss”, they would think as they trudged back to the changing rooms after another defeat. The disjointed performances led to lots of goals conceded and not many scored – a recipe for disaster, and a managerial sacking.
Ole’s at the wheel… or is he?
“They are good players and it’s up to them to use their imagination, creativity and just enjoy playing for this club”
What Solskjaer has done differently is give control back to the players. Players are now given the freedom to find their own solutions on the pitch. They now attack each game with enthusiasm, as opposed to the dread which filled the chests of the players each time they took to the field under Mourinho. This is where the “smiles back on faces” quote that every pundit is saying comes from. Solskjaer is giving the chance for each player to be a leader by splitting the team into smaller units. Smaller units like the combination of Martial, Pogba and Shaw on the left side has led to more cohesive combinations on the ball, while the defence looks improved under the new increased responsibility of each player to contribute to the collective mission. With Solskjaer, the mission is clear – win the game simply by scoring more goals than the opposition team. The players are trusted to create their own ideas on how to win the game, and to own these ideas. The players are much more invested in these ideas because they were the ones that created them instead of the manager, and therefore they are trying much harder to make them work – it will be their fault if they don’t. There is no coincidence that Manchester United went from the team with the least to the most distance covered per game in the Premier League once Solskjaer came in as manager. The execution of decentralized command is visibly shown on the touchline at Manchester United matches now too. Solskjaer spends the same amount of time – maybe even less – in the technical area than his assistants Michael Carrick and Mike Phelan, demonstrating that he has used this strategy with his staff too. When United score now, the whole matchday staff team jump and celebrate in unison because they all know that they contributed their own ideas and creativity to the success. Solskjaer has shown humility by looking up to the United Directors’ Box for advice from Sir Alex Ferguson, something Mourinho never did in his two and a half years in charge. Last month Solskjaer was quizzed by the media about the squad at Manchester United – the same squad that Mourinho would publicly criticize with worrying regularity. He said: “They are good players and it’s up to them to use their imagination, creativity and just enjoy playing for this club”. Contrary to the song all the United fans are singing, Solskjaer is letting his players take the wheel.
United have the mentality of a top team now.
Under Mourinho, Ander Herrera was used in matches against Chelsea as a man-marker for the dangerous opposition winger Eden Hazard. His instruction would simply be to follow this player on the pitch for 90 minutes. This strategy was worrying for many reasons. This sent a message that United thought that Chelsea’s players were better, and also it was too simplistic to think that just by stopping Hazard, it would lead to a United win. It would only take one individual duel that Herrera lost to potentially result in a goal too, and the role as a man-marker took away from Herrera contributing more to the game when United were in possession. In the same fixture under Solskjaer, Herrera was an influential member of the team – making tackles and interceptions, passing the ball and scoring a brilliant goal. Now under Solskjaer, it is the United players that are being man-marked. Paul Pogba was marked by Calum Chambers of Fulham recently – Pogba ended up still scoring two goals in a 3-0 win.
No, Paul Ince couldn’t have done it.
It is important to note that Solskjaer has not just simply turned up and told the team to play football, and sat back to watch the wins come in (like a certain ex-United and Liverpool player may think). Solskjaer has used clever gameplans in his various matches in charge. Against Cardiff, Huddersfield and Bournemouth his team dominated possession and attacked quickly, mainly on the inside left channel where Pogba is positioned. Against Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea he opted for the counter-attack strategy employing wide strikers and was happy to concede more possession of the ball in order to defend more compactly. He has identified weaknesses in certain areas of opposition teams such as the left side of Chelsea, where the attack-minded Alonso would vacate space in behind for midfield runners like Herrera and pacey attackers like Marcus Rashford. Unlike Mourinho, Solskjaer is not obsessed with details, but places the correct amount of importance to them. The most crucial point of all is that his players have bought into the vision that Solskjaer has championed – winning.
How can you implement the above strategies to get more out of your team and your life? Let me know in the comments below!