#OleBall SO FAR; WHAT HAS HE DONE WELL? WHAT MUST HE CONTINUE TO DO?
I am writing this after the Manchester Utd game vs. Brighton in the English Premier League..another win, another 3 points for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and a rejuvenated Man Utd team (7 wins on the bounce). What has he done differently? Why are majority of the players all of a sudden playing like new signings? What has changed in the football system and tactics?
Let me first start by saying what I think is a very important part of a coach's job; getting the best out of your players. It's as simple as comparing it to a manager in an office who gets the best out of his employees, and more often than not, it comes from what flows from the manager. Human beings are very delicate creatures, and understanding how to tap into this vulnerability can make the difference in getting just average effort/output from your players, or getting that extra/their best.
A football coach must get the best out of his players in 2 ways;
1- Ability: Playing them in roles/systems that best ( not averagely or poorly) utilizes their football qualities.
A football system or role that makes the player's ( and players as a group ) ability flourish in its best/ a very high form is very important. Players will buy into your football more if they see their individual and collective abilities are being utilized in an efficient way.
The feeling of confidence, trust, and happiness that makes a player feel like he is playing under the best conditions (which will translate to a better output) and even going the extra mile ( not just bare minimum ). Employees that have a boss who makes them confident, happy, trusts them, and treats them relatively fairly will more often than not perform above bare minimum in terms of effort.
It is a subconscious thing that just flows from the inner mind being at peace, and liking your boss. Bare minimum effort vs. extra effort comes from that foundation of being in the right conditions/being happy.
What Solskjaer has done from a non direct footballing angle is to first of all get in the players heads. He has created a positive environment, made all of them feel special again, praised them, made them feel confident in their abilities again, put majority of the attention/focus on what they do good, and given them the freedom to express themselves more.
He has already connected with the players in ways that the former manager had lost the ability to do, and the result is the reborn Man Utd team we are witnessing so far. When people pick on Pogba and say he's a snake, that he downed tools under the former manager, and disrespected the club, I ask them what about the other players that are looking like new signings? I try to tell them that if an employee/player is not in the right conditions, a natural drop in effort/confidence/output will be the outcome, and in football the coach is responsible for that.
The coach is responsible for getting the best out of his players. Once a coach loses his players, he is as good as gone. So Pogba didn't "down tools", Matic didn't ( imagine Matic of all people, who is Mourinho's football son, also not playing well under Mourinho, then all of a sudden playing well now ). Did Matic also purposely down tools? In everyday life, even sons will not perform to their best, under fathers that don't create the right environment.
Now back to the direct footballing side of things Solskjaer has changed; It is as clear as day over these 7 games, that there has been a change in the football system of Manchester Utd. As much as the intangibles mentioned earlier have contributed to the upturn in form, it would all be for nothing if improvements in the actual football were not implemented.
As I mentioned earlier, Solksjaer has played to the individual player's strengths better, and this has resulted in the whole team being more effective. Let me touch on a few of the players;
Paul Pogba: A midfielder who can do everything from an attacking standpoint, best thing will be to give him roles/a position that accentuates these qualities. Under Ole, Pogba has participated less in the initial build up ( Matic or Herrera usually drop deeper ), stayed further up the pitch ( almost like a roving number 10 majority of the time ), and made runs into the box more often than not. All these with the security of knowing Herrera and Matic are behind.
It's no coincidence he's scoring and assisting at such a high rate these past few games, as he is creating closer to the goal ( and also defending closer to the goal with the high press), in closer proximity to the other forwards, and has the license to push and try things himself. As a coach, the first thing I'd do with Pogba is base the attacking hub of my team around him, and Ole has done that immediately.
Victor Lindelof: A proper silky defender with amazing ball playing skills. Why have such a player and not play to his strengths? Under Solskjaer, Lindelof has flourished. Why? He has been allowed to participate in the initial build up from the back, he has been allowed to drive with the ball forward, create player overloads in the midfield by being that extra man when teams sit back, and he has been allowed to try to create from deep with exquisite long balls.
The former manager once said he had no one to play out from the back, and I still think he was joking around, or said that tongue in cheek. In Lindelof, Utd have one of the best young ball playing center backs in Europe, all that needed to be done was play to his abilities better, and Ole has done just so.
I watch Leonardo Bonucci every week, in fact I've done so for the better part of 8 years since he joined Juventus as a 23 year old. The Bonucci you see today, was not the finished product at 23. Lindelof at 24 reminds me of a young Bonucci, and I have high hopes in Victor the same way I did for Leonardo. This says a lot.
The Front Three; Martial, Rashford, and Lingard: Last year, I wrote about how it was folly to base majority of Man Utd chance creation dynamics on high crosses, when Utd did not have good crossers, and had players who would flourish with ground passes and fast movement;
Ole has come in and changed the attacking dynamics of Manchester Utd. The passing interchanges, the fluid positions, the quick pass and move combos, attacking through the center, fullbacks pushing high up to take advantage of the spaces created through the movement of the forwards in the center ( followed by cut backs or ground crosses most of time ), and creating one v one isolated plays for the good dribblers ( Martial especially ).
There is also a better and more deliberate exploitation of dragging out the opposition from side to side, and exploiting open spaces. The result? An attack that looks like they spend enough time practicing how to attack, and have plundered 19 goals in the last 7 games in all competitions. Went from a negative goal difference to +13, and have all of a sudden scored more goals than Chelsea, same as Spurs, and just 2 behind Arsenal, remarkable turnaround.
The defensive organization part of the football system has also changed. There is higher intensity group pressing in zones, the defense plays a higher line and condenses play majorly in the opposition half, and the forwards more often than not kickstart pressing from high up the pitch.
Overall, Man Utd now seek to dominate possession, and win the ball back very quickly when it is lost ( unlike under the previous manager who was more often than not, a reactive coach with a passive defensive organization ). I talked about the benefit of this in my previous article when I wrote about what Jose had to do to improve Man Utd:
In summary, The speed of attack/freedom/quick movement has helped the front three and Pogba, high/a more intense press/winning the ball back, then recycling the chance creation attempts as fast as possible has helped Ander Herrera ( he has been really superb recently), more running options ahead has helped Nemanja Matic ( he is giving way more vertical passes, and they have been incisive) and Pogba, defenders playing a high line and being involved in the initial build up/encouraged to move out with the ball/encouraged to create from deep when the chance arises has helped Victor Lindelof and to a lesser extent Phil Jones, and pushing the fullbacks high up the pitch to attack the spaces and press high has helped Ashley Young and Luke Shaw.
Are you seeing how the football system has brought out the best qualities of the individual players? I wrote about this in another of my old articles;
The sum total result of the change in the overall system and being aware of and playing to each player's individual strengths, has been the much more improved and efficient Manchester United. Credit must go to Ole, Phelan, Carrick, and Mckenna for doing the right things, and the hope is that they continue to do so.
GAME VS SPURS
This game was really important for so many reasons, majority of which was based around the question of who Man Utd had played prior. For me, even those games against the small teams were enough to see the changes in the football system.
But the Spurs game was important to me for another reason entirely, I wanted to see Ole's football approach to it ( his pre-game management ), and his in-game management vs. a tactically astute coach in Poch. Ole got his pre-game management spot on. Man Utd in the previous games had gone in with the intention to dominate possession, but vs. Spurs there was a deviation ( rightly so ).
The team was set up to counter attack, and take advantages of the spaces left behind by the Spurs fullbacks who always push high when Spurs are in a certain phase of their attack. If counter attack is the game plan, as a good coach, you have to know the positions of each opposition player in every phase of their attacking organization, so that when you win the ball in that phase, you know exactly where to counter the opposition from.
Draw Spurs in, let them get to that phase, press with a higher intensity, win the ball back as Spurs fullbacks are caught high up, then switch play to the spaces. Rashford and Martial were kept wide to take advantage, while Lingard was played centrally and was crucial in stopping the Spurs build up through Harry Winks. If there was a game to confirm that Ole isn't tactically naive, this was it.
He passed with flying colors. The second half brought about a switch from Spurs, and they dominated ( even though earlier in the half, Pogba could have scored 2 ), but from a certain point onwards it was all Spurs. At this point I was paying attention to Ole's in-game management. Spurs were battering Utd as soon as they changed shape ( special appreciation to David De Gea, he truly is a superman ) and I was curious to what Ole would do ( his in-game management ).
He ended up reacting a little later than I'd have wanted ( the Dalot and Lukaku changes ). He passed my in-game management test, but could have done better with the timing. I think he's also learning on the job, and I will look forward to the next game that requires timely in- game management, and see what he does.
I think it is too early to call, but if at the end of the season we look back and see he did a great job, then he must be considered as a serious option, alongside others. I am very open to having him as a permanent boss if he continues on this path.
Let us not forget there are still organizational changes that need to be done at Man Utd, more quality player additions added, and a clear out of deadwood players. I hope the club is actively trying to address this.
Goodluck to the team for the rest of the season. Glory Glory Man Utd.
N.B : I have always been of the opinion that playing Pogba as a fixed 10 would take away some of his build up ability and leading transitions from the back while running with the ball, but Ole has somehow made him play higher (not as a fixed 10), while still utilzing these abilities. Kudos to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Also, the older articles I referenced in this write up are all on this blog, feel free to explore. Thank you.