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5 problems the new Man United manager needs to solve

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was announced as the interim boss earlier today.

Manchester United's Paul Pogba (left) and Marouane Fellaini during the Premier League match last weekend at Anfield.
Manchester United's Paul Pogba (left) and Marouane Fellaini during the Premier League match last weekend at Anfield.

OLE GUNNAR SOLSKJAER was announced as the new interim manager of Manchester United earlier today, while a more experienced and high-profile coach is expected to take charge in the summer.

With the club frequently struggling prior to Mourinho’s departure, both Solskjaer and his successor have a sizeable task on their hands, with several issues that need addressing…

1. Underperforming stars

Under Jose Mourinho’s watch, several players appeared to recede. The reputations of stars such as Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez have been significantly affected since they joined the club. Younger players, including Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Luke Shaw, have similarly not progressed to the extent that the Red Devils would have hoped. 

It is often said that if Pep Guardiola were in charge, United’s players would have developed faster. Certainly, there is plenty of evidence that the Catalan coach is capable of enhancing players. Individuals such as Raheem Sterling, John Stones and Fernandinho have all improved significantly under his watch, in contrast with the Red Devils stars’ woes.

Mourinho spent in the region of £400 million on new signings during his tenure, but this investment failed to have the desired effect, with the club hardly significantly better off than they were under David Moyes or Louis van Gaal.

No one is expecting the incoming boss to instantaneously make United as formidable as their high-flying neighbours, but there is no doubt that the players are currently underperforming.

Having finished second last season, more or less the same group of players are sixth, 19 points off top spot with half the campaign still to play.

They have conceded 29 goals already — one more than was scored against them in the entirety of last season.

Surely, the situation cannot get much worse than their present predicament.

2. The team’s awful style of play

Manchester City v Manchester United - Premier League - Etihad Stadium Man United were frequently criticised for their style of play under Mourinho. Source: Martin Rickett

Gary Neville put it best when he described Man United as a team playing on “moments”.

Under Mourinho, there was no fluency to the play. It was stop-star, cynical and ultimately, unwatchable.

There is no doubt that the Portuguese manager’s deeply cautious approach worked up to a point, as it had at previous clubs.

In his first season at United, the 55-year-old won the Europa League and the EFL Cup. The trend over the course of Mourinho’s career of his teams peaking in the second season arguably continued, as he finished above Klopp’s Liverpool and Pochettino’s Tottenham — two sides with managers who are praised more regularly than the ‘Special One’ tends to be — albeit behind Pep Guardiola’s City by a seismic 19 points.

This season, though, the wheels came off, as they did for Mourinho in previous stints at Chelsea and Real Madrid. 

There was a definite regression. The negative style of play, with the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini frequently used as target men, remained.

But supporters will accept a dour style of play so long as results are broadly positive, but once the team started struggling, Mourinho’s position immediately looked tenuous, while it did not help that rivals Tottenham, Chelsea, Liverpool, City and Arsenal were all playing with a bravura style that produced excitement as well as the sense that the teams in question were moving in the right direction.

The style factor is a big reason why Mourinho has never lasted particularly long in any one job — the three-and-a-bit seasons he stuck around for in his first spell at Chelsea remains his longest stint in management. Good technical football has invariably been sacrificed for the sake of results. This approach has paid off in the short term in many instances, but at a club like United, where teams are expected to attack, pass and show for the ball, it seemed doomed to failure in the long run.

The club are now a far cry from their glory years. The treble winners with that magnificent midfield quartet of Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs seem a distant memory.  

As Gary Neville said at the weekend: “Liverpool are streets ahead. Streets. Not one of the United midfielders can pass a football. Not one of them.” 

That situation is a poor reflection, not just on Mourinho, but on the whole recruitment policy and the way the club is being run at large.

It will require a significant turnaround and change of approach, not just from the new man but those backing him as well, in order to alter this disconcerting slide into a team that, as Keane pointed out on Sunday, resembles the largely inept Red Devils sides of the ’80s more so than the fearless, breathtaking, bold brilliance that characterised the halcyon days of the Alex Ferguson era.

3. The issues at boardroom level and the conspicuous absence of a sense of unity within the club

Manchester United v Newcastle United - Premier League - Old Trafford Manchester United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward (centre) in the stands. Source: EMPICS Sport

This is one area that the new manager undoubtedly will not have total control over, though he can certainly exert a degree of influence.

Under Mourinho, the relationship between the manager and the board was clearly strained.

Having backed the coach with a contract extension less than a year ago, it proved a costly error, with reports varying on exactly how much Mourinho subsequently received in compensation amid his sacking, but it is thought to be between £12 million and £22.5 million.

As many have pointed out, the problems began even before the season started. Jamie Carragher called his exit “inevitable” owing to the issues in the summer.

Mourinho made public his disagreements with the club’s hierarchy over the lack of recent signings — just two high-profile players were brought in over the summer — Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk (£50 million) and Diogo Dalot from Porto (£19 million).

The United boss felt the defence needed strengthening, identifying Bayern Munich’s Jerome Boateng and Toby Alderweireld as targets, though the board had reservations about the age and injury records of the players in question, and the Portuguese coach’s requests were ignored.

Solskjaer and whoever succeeds him won’t be able to force the club into buying players. However, unlike Mourinho, they must at the very least keep these type of disagreements private.

Evident problems between a board and management team leads to a negative atmosphere within the club, which tends to affect and hinder the players, as well as everyone else working there to an extent. To quote Herc from the TV show The Wire: “The shit always rolls downhill.”

A show of unity and creating the impression of a singular vision is therefore vital for the long-term health of the team.

4. Concerns about the possible failure to achieve a top-four finish

Russia: Zenit Saint Petersburg v Molde FK - UEFA Europa League: Play-offs Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has today been announced as the new interim boss at Man United. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Man United currently sit an astonishing 11 points behind fourth-place Chelsea.

Solskjaer undoubtedly has a tough task on his hands retrieving this deficit, but it is not beyond the realms of possibility, as the Norwegian will know well, having been involved in many similarly improbable comebacks during the Alex Ferguson era.

United have the core of a good team and still have the potential to challenge for the top four.

Investment in January is unlikely to be considerable, but one or two astute purchases could go a long way towards improving the situation.

Moreover, when playing at the optimal level, David de Gea, Luke Shaw, Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are the type of players most teams in the world would be happy to have at their disposal.

Many critics have suggested that United have written off the season and that they can afford to hire a relatively inexperienced manager, such as Solskjaer, given the low stakes.

However, this line of thinking perhaps underestimates the importance to the club of attaining Champions League football next season. Should they fail, it has been well documented how badly it tends to hit a Premier League team’s finances.

Moreover, without the lure of competing in Europe’s biggest club competition, it will be more difficult for the club to attract top-level players, not to mention a manager talented enough to bring back the glory days and succeed where Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho have already patently failed.

5. The lack of faith in young players

Valencia v Manchester United - UEFA Champions League - Group H - Mestalla Stadium Marcus Rashford struggled to fulfill his potential under Jose Mourinho. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

One of the recurring themes of Alex Ferguson’s unprecedented success as Man United boss was his trust in youth and willingness to promote players from the club’s academy.

Under Jose Mourinho, this approach was not so pronounced.

While he did buy some young players such as Dalot and Eric Bailly, in addition to giving Scott McTominay a chance, there was a lingering sense that Mourinho never fully embraced the idea of putting faith in youngsters.

Whereas the likes of Pochettino and Klopp are happy to slowly develop starlets such as Harry Winks and Trent Alexander-Arnold, the outgoing United boss tended to turn on the equivalents in his team and publicly chastise them for their inevitable errors.

After the duo’s disappointing display against Newcastle last October, he described Rashford as “sad” and McTominay as “scared,” suggesting the individuals in question were struggling to cope with the burden of expectation at Old Trafford.

Moreover, Mourinho’s signings were telling. For the most part, he preferred to bring in players who were already established first-team stars — the likes of Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic and Alexis Sanchez — rather than players he felt he could develop for the future, thereby adding to his reputation as the ultimate short-term results-based manager.

Solskjaer and the man who follows him must restore the club’s previous policy of trusting in youth despite the risk that this philosophy entails. Alex Ferguson built a dynasty by adhering to such ideals and while in modern football, it is unrealistic to expect any manager to last 26 years in one job as Fergie did, nor is the exact opposite approach, which Mourinho appeared to abide by, conducive to long-term success.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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