Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s Man Utd: Football of Faith

“Foolish humans, this is faith without the H

The further you go through life, the less you be predicate on faith. Without any sort of substantiation, you try not to believe. Yet, you can’t help that feeling sometimes. It’s mystical.

It’s not an easy thing to have or exercise either. Even harder still to instil into others. It’s why the leaders have to be so charismatic and unwavering in all aspects of leading to ensure you have the faith of others.

Just over two years ago, Manchester United would place a type of faith in Ole Gunnar Solskjær. After four years with managers that were antithetical to the ways Old Trafford, the former Norwegian super-sub was brought in to steady the ship with something a little bit more exciting. Such was the magnificence of the run, he was given the permanent role. Since March 2019, the feelings towards Solskjaer oscillates as a sine wave does, between the good and bad. Currently, it is reaching the zenith of positivity.

There still remains plenty of dissenters and doubters of whether he is doing enough in his role. 30 points from 15 games in this COVID disrupted season is nothing to pout about so why is the faith in the manager at Old Trafford so polarising?

The top within touching distance

Right now, it looks as if United are building momentum for a challenge no one could see coming. If you were evaluating Solskjaer’s coaching capabilities though, it would come out less favourably compared to his contemporaries. His man management skills however shines brightly in comparison to his predecessors. But it has been two years and by now, a team should be reflective of the man heading the ship. So, an all-encompassing description of what Solskjaer’s footballing philosophy is? It would be faith.

Yes, in every regard of management, the roads of Solskjaer all lead back to the fact that he remains faithful, to the club, to the players and in his methods.

Faith – Religion

The beginnings

“Strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof”

The troubling seven and half years means the connection to Ferguson’s glory days are more like a spiritual conviction. Tenuously growing ever weaker, the doctrines of the Scotsman tapped into the ones established many moons before him, with the importance of youth and good attacking football. It was perhaps the departure from it that made the lack of success even more cutting than if we failed in ways we had known before. As the old saying goes, better to fail in your own way than someone else’s.

Philosophy and Principles

Football has evolved to the point where the philosophical motivations of a manager are the most significant of the overall package when the board looks at appointing a new one. Perhaps fifteen years ago, only the prowess of the manager was considered. You see, a philosophy in its essence has to be overarching but it is the employment of the principles in the philosophy that distinguishes yourself from the pack.  For example, the well-established Manchester United way of attacking was to do so with verve. While using the width of the Old Trafford pitch like The Rack for the opponents, crosses were bombarded on the siege of the opposition. No less important was the ability to combine effectively in smaller places. A thousand ways to skin a cat and the aim was to know all the thousands ways because circumstances may dictate one way being more amenable than the other.

So coming into a place, so far removed from its past in identity and achievement, and having been there as a player and coach when the hallowed halls were revered, Solskjaer chose the idea of looking back. The reverence that he holds his old boss in is shown by him refusing the parking space of the old man until recently. The faith in the philosophy of United by the Norwegian is so much so Carl Anka’s, of the Athletic, summation of the whys and hows shows it is clearly in his thinking.

United Way

The template

From the need of a ball carrying CB (Rio-Maguire) and a right-back with defensive acumen and room to grow (Neville-Wan Bissaka) to the chase of an additional centre-back, complementing Maguire, and a right winger to add the ability to cross are yet to be added. Even the additions of Alex Telles as a may represent an attempt of a left-back resembling Patrice Evra and Edinson Cavani adding to the depth of strikers that was prevalent through the Fergie years.

The idea of tapping into the vestiges of the successful Manchester United is fine to a certain point. Following it with such strict adherence puts you in danger of creating an outdated team. The example of Maguire representing a modern version of Ferdinand is enough in showing why this way of thinking could make plans fall flat. Philosophical attributions are fine but the principles have to match the modernity of football. So far, this has been the biggest issue with Man Utd under the stewardship of the ex-Molde and United player. So far, rather than sampling the best bits to create new piece of art, too much focus remains on recreating the same art with different paint brushes.

The Risk

Our counter attack naturally comes together as the player currently under his deploy do so with devastating pace and are able to exploit the big spaces with clinical nature. It is when that natural advantage is curbed. You see the principles needed in order to break down inordinately come from coaches employing patterns of play that encourage the shapes and ball movement to provoke gaps in the rearguard of the opposition. Too often, Man Utd are stumped by relatively mediocre low blocks so when our attacking talent being propped up by a small bit of structural support would go a long way in aiding our attempts in regularly getting goals.

The advent of crossing into this team would add a well needed feather to the cap and the benefits of it explored before. Paul Pogba is positioned deeper because our midfielders are all unable to progress play as well as he is. A higher position in the pocket would stretch teams more, put less focus on Bruno Fernandes and get the ex-Juve man in areas that he thrives well in. The problem is the suitability of the defensive midfielder to hold the fort but there seems to be a lack of trust in options there to perform that role.

Faith – Trust

“Complete trust or confidence in someone or something”

What Solskjær entrusts his players with fully, is the idea that it is up to the players on the pitch to impose their superiority. The talent within the ranks at Old Trafford is not matched by many clubs so relying on this will yield positive results more often than not.

Much has been made of the degradation of football enjoyment as players are restricted to the point where they hardly move between zones and limited in the risk-taking actions they are allowed to make. Stats increasingly prominent role in football has made it so that where one would see players let off speculative shots in the hope of producing a wondrous moment against teams in camped positions, they look for the extra pass. Freedom of expression is at an all-time low.

Freedom of Movement

This is not the case at United. Infrequent is the occasion where you see players picking up the ball in what you would consider conventional. Particularly with the front three when Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood fulfil those role, you see a constant switching of position. Of course, if the defenders are always concerned with where exactly you will be, then it is an additional problem. However, virtually every single team sets up zonally and are more concerned with any player that comes into their zone rather than following designated players.

Still, creating numerical overloads by supporting another player is a common way in which United make inroads towards goal. All too often though, you see players all make the same move to the same area of the pitch, congesting one part of the pitch, invariably the left hand side. Swaths of space will exist on the right hand side of the pitch but Wan Bissaka will be filling this area on his lonesome.

The grativation towards the left a consequence of the better technical creative players enjoying that channel but effective holding of positions would help us more. Numerous times throughout the game, the players would show tactical naivety and immaturity that put pay to the idea that they should be given the freedom to express themselves.

Everlasting or Not

Trust is comforting…

In spite of this, however, Solskjær has still maintained a level of trust within a core group of players, even during less favourable form. It is a complete contrast to previous managers who would be willing to bomb you out of the team at the first sign of indiscretion or drop in form. The shining examples are Martial and Rashford.

Often pitted against each other in the left wing slot, the introduction of Ole saw them paired together instead. The budding partnership between the two was clear from when Louis van Gaal was still presiding over the grounds at Carrington. Unfortunately, Mourinho’s ways contravened heavily with their developmental needs and they essentially lost 2 and half years of progression.

Both were trialled through the middle and it ended with Martial establishing himself as the most well suited to that role. Rashford would go back to left wing, something that Nicky Butt said would be his best position. In 2019/20, when the other was injured, they both struggled. It was their work together, with the absence of Pogba, that was managing to win us games on the rare occasions that it occurred. It was their first season of regular football, week in and week out, since 2016.

… but competition remains fierce.

A less supportive manager may have been less forgiving but in a show of faith, Ole stuck by them. Rashford scored against Liverpool to halt the rot, producing his best football until a back injury seemingly curtailed his whole season. Martial halted his own bad times with a header against Chelsea and would go on to finish the season as the club’s top scorer and player’s POTY.

They both would go through similar runs again, Rashford suffering from the pangs of prolonged periods without football and getting back into the flow of things after his serious injury. He has resolved this spectacularly against Brighton and hasn’t looked back since. Martial’s still goes on currently, a shadow of himself.

He has seemingly lost his cool collected nature since the misses against Copenhagen in the Europa League quarter final. Sevilla, PSG, West Brom and Leeds has seen him miss chances that he would often gobble up. Cavani’s experience and differing qualities, some of which Ole adores and tries his best to drum into the Frenchman, means now Martial has been shifted out of the position he wants to play in. Back to the left wing berth. All faith isn’t everlasting.

In their heads

This is far from a bad thing, though. It is this type of mentality that will stand a group in good stead, by fostering an environment of competitiveness while knowing that you have managerial trust no matter your standing. While Solskjaer has maintained faith in the process, be it with tactics or players, rumours swirl, as they do, when the results have not been favourable. It seems as if the faith of the board was about to run out. But when those opportunities arose, where one result could be the tipping point, the team would usually bring it out the bag.

A group of players that are willing to fight for their manager’s safety. This transcends the teetering points as well. The quite ridiculous stat where United came behind in 6 away games, before Leicester away, consecutively to take all 18 points available. It shows a resilience that Ole would harken back to as a staple within the United of old.

Mustard seeds and mountains

The top of the mountain

“Mountains are made to be climbed aren’t they! You can’t lay down and say this is over,”

The United of old knew of some good comebacks. The words of Ole before the famed game vs PSG, the game that would ultimately seal him the job on a permanent basis. There are words that say that faith the size of mustard seed is enough to move mountains. Whilst the win in the last 16 round was momentous but in the end, the competition was not won to crystallise that moment more. The season after, the semi-finals proved stumbling block on each occasion of the cup competitions, domestic or continental.

The product on the pitch is not indicative of what you would expect of the position we currently reside in. Not a single unit provides you with any sort of faith that they can substantiate any type of form reflecting of a title challenger. Defensively, we are very rarely at ease and have only managed to keep 4 clean sheets thus far. The midfield is constantly unable to fulfil any of the requirements of restricting, controlling or creating in the game and even when it does one of the three, it will not be able to do the other two. The forwards, whilst being the most stacked in terms of talent, have flattered to deceive this season and are relying heavily the work of Fernandes and Rashford.

Be that as it may, the belief in a title challenge grows ever more with every positive result. 8 wins in 12 creates a situation whereby Solskjær clearly has the backing of the board, a large portion of the fans have his support too and the players are following suit. This is the closest the Red Devils have been to the top of the league in 8 years. Is it blind faith, based on some sort spiritual conviction emanating from the club? Do people actually have complete trust and faith in the manager and players? Who knows. The substantiation of evidence isn’t there yet but it won’t stop those from believing.

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