Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been putting lots of smiles back on faces at Manchester United over the past three-and-a-half weeks but there was a stark reminder last weekend that the interim manager is not there simply to play happy families.
Anyone who was in the dressing room at half-time of United’s FA Cup tie against Reading at Old Trafford last Saturday to watch Solskjaer unleash his own version of Sir Alex Ferguson’s infamous “hairdryer” will have learnt very quickly that, beneath the baby-faced veneer and easy charm, lies a strong personality who will not tolerate a drop in standards.
United were leading 2-0 but Solskjaer was unhappy with what he had seen and had no hesitation about letting rip. Screaming directly into the faces of players in true Ferguson style, Solskjaer unloaded for a minute or two. Rant over and point made, the focus then switched to calmly discussing how United would tackle the second half.
The incident is instructive because, while Solskjaer oozes genuine warmth and compassion and has wasted no time transforming the mood at United after Jose Mourinho’s joyless, corrosive regime ended up breeding loathing, resentment and paranoia, it debunks any notion that the Norwegian might be a pushover. That Solskjaer’s tirade has not been mentioned since is also telling. Mourinho could hold a grudge for weeks but Solskjaer will address issues head on and move on quickly. No sulking, no brooding. Just grown up management.
For players and staff alike, it is just one example of the sharp wind of change that has blown through the club since Mourinho was sacked a week before Christmas and Solskjaer and Mike Phelan, Ferguson’s long-standing assistant, were appointed to rescue morale, and a season that was capitulating. Five successive wins, a vibrant, attack-minded approach that United’s fans have been quick to embrace and a buoyant atmosphere have restored the feelgood factor and now comes their biggest challenge yet with a trip to Wembley to face in-form Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday.
The presence of Mauricio Pochettino in the opposite dugout will offer a reminder that Solskjaer is only at Old Trafford on a caretaker basis. The Tottenham head coach tops a list of permanent candidates to succeed Mourinho and a lot will have to happen between now and the end of the season to change that thinking but Solskjaer could not have hoped to make a better first impression.
The tone was set on his first day in the job. Jumping at an invitation to attend the club’s Christmas party at Old Trafford cricket ground that night, the 500 staff present in “The Point” hospitality suite had no idea Solskjaer would be attending and began serenading him with his song when he was invited on stage by executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward. Addressing a jubilant crowd, Solskjaer told them it was his and the team’s duty to put smiles on their faces and that “if you can’t enjoy yourself at United, where can you enjoy yourself?”
That inclusive, family feel was evident once again in Dubai on Wednesday night when Solskjaer arranged for the entire travelling party, players included, to go for a meal at the opulent, Asian themed Play Restaurant & Lounge on the final night of their five-day training camp in the Middle East.
The trip to Dubai was beneficial in many ways. Solskjaer used it to build up fitness levels and work on specific formations and tactics for the Tottenham game but also next month’s matches against Paris St-Germain and Liverpool at Old Trafford. Yet it has also been an invaluable bonding exercise. Observers say training has also appeared more thorough and, crucially, more fun.
After a particularly gruelling session in near 30C heat at the Nad Al Sheba sporting complex on Wednesday, there was initially not a great deal of appetite for some games. But that soon changed when the squad was divided into three 8-a-side teams - academy graduates and goalkeeper David De Gea in one, another made up of older heads and a third side compromising everyone in between - and told they were playing a “winner-stays-on” tournament.
It got so competitive that the players were pleading with the coaching staff to let them carry when things were eventually wrapped up and the youthful side featuring the likes of Marcus Rashford, Andreas Pereira, Scott McTominay, Tahith Chong and Angel Gomes emerged triumphant and revelled in playfully mocking their senior counterparts.
Rashford captured the mood under Solskjaer this week when he tweeted a picture of him, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial and joked that the new manager was reliving the moment he scored the winning goal in the 1999 Champions League final against Bayern Munich. “Seconds left.. Becks whipped in a perfect corner. Teddy flicked it on. The rest is history”. Yet it is no exaggeration that the younger players, in particular, have been hanging off Solskjaer’s every word, hungry for information and encouraged by his approachable demeanour.
It helps that Solskjaer’s memory is razor sharp. John O’Shea discovered just that on the defender’s return to Old Trafford with Reading and was reminded by Solskjaer that he captained United on the day the Irishman made his first team debut 20 years ago. Staff have had a taste of that, too. Some who had not seen Solskjaer for at least four years were touched that he remembered their children’s names. One coach at academy level said he had spoken more to Solskjaer in one morning than he did to Mourinho in 18 months. MUTV, United’s official television station, are back on the inside after being pushed out and ostracised by Mourinho.
Mourinho had lost the majority of players as long as nine months before he finally got the boot so it was inevitable any replacement would enjoy a bounce but Solskjaer’s personal, empathetic touch is very quickly winning hearts and minds. Ferguson was instrumental in bringing Solskjaer back to United, even if suggestions the former manager was invited to address the players are wide of the mark and he has no direct involvement with the team. Yet the influence of the Scot on his former striker has been very apparent, right down to the way the interim has been delivering bad news.
One player dropped in the past fortnight found Solskjaer recounting a story from his playing days about how he had been convinced he would start the next league match against Arsenal after coming off the bench to score four times in an 8-1 thrashing of Nottingham Forest in 1999 only to again find himself among the substitutes. It was Solskjaer telling the player he understood how he felt.
Another was told he would not be playing because he had a crucial role to play in the game after that and Solskjaer needed him completely fit and focused, a classic Ferguson tactic. For players who were usually not told when or why they had been dropped under Mourinho and Van Gaal, Solskjaer’s honesty is refreshing.
Solskjaer has generally left the likes of Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna - who have become far more visible and vocal than they ever were under Mourinho - to lead training along with Phelan and new recruit Mark Dempsey, another United old boy who worked with Solskjaer at Cardiff and during his first spell at Molde. Solskjaer will interject when he sees fit but it has been notable that when training finishes and the players hang around to do extras, Solskjaer stays out.
That has been most evident with the strikers on finishing exercises. For example, Solskjaer has been talking Rashford through specific examples of moments he encountered as a player to encourage the England forward to think more about his positioning, body shape, footwork and mindset in the penalty area. Solskjaer has also drawn on his experiences of playing with and working alongside the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney.
Under Mourinho, Van Gaal and David Moyes, there was almost a fixation with the opposition, to the point of over-analysis. With Solskjaer and Phelan, there has been a marked shift towards United focusing on their own strengths, and where they can hurt the opposition. Players are more inclined to take risks because they know their mistakes will not be picked apart for days in front of the group. “Ole wants the players to express what we have inside and not to be limited or restrained by sticking to any fixed positions on the pitch,” one dressing room source said.
For all the scrutiny on Solskjaer, no one should underestimate the role of Phelan. Moyes erred gravely by ignoring Ferguson’s advice to keep Phelan on and the 56-year-old has proved an important buffer for Solskjaer, shielding him from much of the bureaucracy that comes with the job while also serving as an invaluable sounding board for staff. Van Gaal and Mourinho were territorial, micromanaging every last detail, and often took umbrage when colleagues were consulted before them.
There were also endless, tedious rules that would change so frequently that staff never quite knew where they stood. It created cliques and a culture of fear and apprehension. All that has changed under Solskjaer and Phelan. Solskjaer welcomes and encourages Phelan’s input and ideas. Both operate open door policies and want everyone to feel wanted and important. United have some of their soul back.
Spurs was a real test and I think he passed it well. Had the tactics spot on first half. Not sure if he could have done better to react to Spurs 2nd half approach, because Spurs are such a good side, but we let them have far too many scoring chances. Looking forward to more tests. I think by end of march we have a better picture if has the tactical nouse to be our permanent manager.
Will be interesting to see so how he reacts to being behind or how his team reacts to losing a game. On one side I hope he doens't lose at all till summer but on the other side to really judge if he has it to be our permanent manager, it would give a clearer picture
I want to see how he does against the best of the best, like PSG and Barca (if he makes a good run in the champions league, then i'll be convinced). I'm still slightly sceptical, just because of the rest of his forays into management being rather underwhelming (especially because of what happened at Cardiff).
You need to check out what he did at Molde after he cut his teeth at Cardiff to understand why he has a real chance of success here. But he does need testing to see what he makes of adversity, and he's got the ultimate adversity tests coming up
Now by rights he should not be coming through that lot with anything other than losses and draws. Let's see how they, and he, go on.