A crisis of perception: why Manchester United need to evolve to reclaim their throne

A crisis of perception: why Manchester United need to evolve to reclaim their throne

You can argue that people have long been inclined to strain to see order where there is actually chaos. Tolstoy’s thoughts on military history in War and Peace are pretty much that battles are gigantic, horrific messes where anything and everything can happen. Folk then come and join up the bloody dots to say what actually happened, and usually declare whichever lucky sod is left standing a genius. Napoleon didn’t stop being a divine genius and unstoppable force when he reached Moscow; as many thought, the guy’s lucky streak simply ran out.

I wouldn’t want to compare Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to Napoleon. Ken Early of the Irish Times already did a fine job comparing Mourinho to Bonaparte a few months back. I would like to suggest, though, that few things in the world are subject to so many continued attempts to frame events into narratives as football.

If you google the term “Manchester United crisis” you get over 8,000 results. Granted, nobody could dispute in the past six years the club have failed to reach the excellence we have been used to seeing from them since the dawn of the Premier League era. It hasn’t been a period of continual doom and gloom, though. They have won three trophies in those six years, have been in the Champions League four times, and in 2017/18 had a credible runners-up finish with enough points to have won them the league in several other seasons (including in their 1999 treble-winning year). 

What makes the past few years tinged with disappointment is the widely acknowledged fact that their managers in that time have largely been disasters. David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and José Mourinho’s names alone are enough to make many United fans recoil – they are names associated with the mediocracy the club just can’t seem to shake off. After such a promising start, Solskjaer is in danger of joining them. 

United’s fortunes within most of these reigns have been bizarrely inconsistent, with some extreme resilience, magical moments and record runs mixed with abject failings. For instance, there was Juan Mata firing in after a 45-touch move under Van Gaal; a record 25-match unbeaten run in Mourinho’s first season; along with famous European wins at Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain last season.

Solskjaer’s short reign has been the weirdest thus far: the best first ten matches of any manager in Premier League history followed by a pretty pathetic eight defeats in 12 that saw their hopes of making next season’s Champions League ended at Huddersfield and the season finishing on the flattest note of all with a loss at home to Cardiff. 

Were these serial winners who had lifted the game’s greatest honours elsewhere (and Moyes) simply plunged out of their depth at Old Trafford, left hopeless from the start by operating in Fergie’s shadow, let down by the jumbled-up thinking and lack of professionalism in the club’s backrooms, or did they also fail to some extent because the world of football thought they were failing?

Read  |  Louis van Gaal: a divisive success story

Some curious reports emerged about how Van Gaal had managed to alienate the dressing room right after his sacking. Reported among various weird and annoying traits was that the Dutchman would email individual analysis clips to his players and even track the emails when it was clear plenty of them weren’t opening the messages. Call me a cynic, but if you are pocketing hundreds of thousands a week to play football and your boss sends you some customised tips on how to do that better, shouldn’t you at least watch them?

Another incredible insight was a supposedly excessive pre-season training camp that contained two training sessions a day, video meetings and tactical discussions. That the players had toast for supper on the camp was cited as another bone of contention. Admittedly, I am more of a KitKat and yoghurt man, given the choice, but the whole report reeked of a player sticking the boot in Van Gaal on the way out, affirming the narrative that United missing out on the Champions League was all the Dutchman’s fault.

If I was a player and the whole world was blaming my manager for a series of poor results, I would probably blame him too before looking at my own failings. Who wouldn’t? At heart, the majority of us are just soldiers looking for the safest way through the vast and complex monster that is life. If you are a top footballer and virtually every move you make is scrutinised and praised or criticised by thousands of people on social media, could you really shrug off that weight of opinion or ignore ridicule?

For all the talk from pundits that players shouldn’t let it affect them or the best way to respond is on the pitch, they are human beings. Of course, footballers have always got an earful of all kinds of nonsense in stadiums, but in the modern day they can be exposed to the same kind of sentiments 24 hours a day if they are on social media. Psychologically it must all be a little suffocating.

A perfectly human reaction is to shield ourselves from criticism and frustration by hiding behind others. A part of the job of a football manager has always been to act as a lightning rod for the fans hauling blame. They mostly accept it, too.

While social media is a forum for the world to debate and persuade, in reality it ends up a lot of the time amplifying widely held views to the point they are almost regarded as fact. Remember how people were falling over themselves to urge United to appoint Solskjaer on a permanent basis during his winning start? Indeed, they appointed him.

The consensus can suddenly change, though, and the competition for online likes gets vast amounts of people scurrying to let the world know they’ve changed their mind; including big-name journalists. What is black and what can shift, but there is rarely room for grey. Just like big clubs can lurch from periods of greatness to crises, Game of Thrones seemed to enjoy a reputation as a masterpiece, yet its final season was ridiculed; even when people had only watched the first couple of episodes. 

Read  |  The social psychology that Manchester United have missed, and must reclaim, since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure

Only a top footballer could really say what it’s like to be playing under a manager that the whole world thinks is failing. Accusing players in a poorly performing team of not caring or trying seems too simplistic. How many people would really focus only on a nice fat paycheque and feel nothing about the shame of defeat and being associated with failure in the eyes of the world? What happens at a deeper psychological level is interesting. Could you get the vital extra edge by putting in that extra yard if you already thought deep down your manager was a failure?

That raises an interesting question about José Mourinho, who earlier in his career was known for an incredible ability to motivate his players. Was he simply unable to motivate players at the end of his time at Old Trafford like he used to, or was it the case the players just didn’t really respond to him as the world seemed to have written him off? Maybe after seeing him ridiculed so much, they couldn’t help viewing him with doubt.

It’s interesting that Van Gaal and Mourinho have both praised the loyalty of the Manchester United fans, yet both seemed to have “lost the dressing room” towards the end of their spells. Perhaps the players became mutinous independently, but it seems possible that the downbeat view the wider world had of their managers had permeated into the players’ own perspectives. 

When le Solskjaer was enjoying his record-breaking start at Old Trafford, the simplicity of his approach to the media was remarkable. He would seemingly answer every question fired at him at by the press with a smile and a “we are Manchester United” reference – hinting that he believed in a kind of in-built greatness of his players emanating from their red shirts. It worked: for a while they were unstoppable. But in an uncanny similarity to his predecessors, doubt developed into desperation soon after. 

Pundits also pointed out that Solskjaer’s “we are Manchester United” references, while useful, were unconvincing, mostly for the fact nobody was quite sure what Manchester United stands for these days. Therein lies the crux of the problem.

While they have provided so many sides in the Premier League era that could be enjoyed for various reasons, the most defining characteristic of the club is surely the success they enjoyed in two decades of domination of the English game. Despite their local rivals’ financial means making matching this success difficult, it remains the yardstick the club is judged against. In the absence of any other clear philosophy to cling onto, failing to achieve the kind of success that was always going to be unlikely has seemingly doomed successive managers.

Read  |  The demise of José Mourinho: a six-year journey of feuds, pragmatism and time passing him by

United are always going to attract huge amounts of speculation and social media comment, but instead of being at the mercy of the opinions that people form, they need to try to steer the process.

There remains a dismissiveness from some quarters in football when it comes to clubs talking about a philosophy. As Mourinho himself famously said after winning the Europa League: “There are lots of poets in football, but poets don’t win many titles.” Surely every club wants to win above anything else. Of course they do.

At a time when the top clubs share plenty of tactical similarities, motivation matters. It’s much easier to motivate players if you have a clear strategy to channel a club’s efforts. Consider the way Ajax performed by almost making the Champions League final: a strong identity defined over generations and with the power of youthful positivity. Also consider how Norwich and Barnsley have earned promotion this season not by outspending their rivals but thanks to their clarity of vision.

Look at any club that has established such joined-up thinking and their players will look like they work harder than everyone else. It’s only logical that they would if they have a crystal clear plan to follow. A number of times last season, various pundits ripped into Paul Pogba for supposedly lacking leadership, but how can a player – however experienced and expensive they may be – set the tone with no clear plan to follow? 

It was no surprise to read in the course of researching this article that Van Gaal has said in a recent interview that United were the only club he managed where he had no discussion about playing styles or philosophy prior to his appointment. Defining what Manchester United are and what they stand for will be the first job for the sporting director they are currently looking to recruit. It will also be the most important.

A dose of realism will be required, as promising too much too soon will do them no favours. Whether they focus on giving youngsters a platform to shine, an attacking playing style or a love for flair players, the club’s illustrious history contains all the ingredients to define a positive path forward. Shouting it out loud will not just be a PR exercise; it might just be the vital element in fostering a happier environment.

It will give the club’s manager a guide of what they need to focus their energies on, and while results will always matter, it will introduce a vital additional element their progress can be judged against. Providing clarity – where up to now there has been just hope and confusion – could end the swings in perception of their managers and, if done well, even bring the years of turbulence at Old Trafford to a close.

By Dan Billingham @D_Billingham

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