The most important trait for Manchester United's next manager to have
If Manchester United are looking for a manager to build a long term project, then there's one particular trait that he must have that's far more important than anything else
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Mauricio Pochettino or Erik Ten Hag? That’s been the question among Manchester United fans for the past few months as they debate who should be the club’s next manager when they presumably hire one in the summer.
Those of you that have followed me for the past few years will know I’m a fan of Pochettino but going from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to Pochettino wouldn’t be much of a change at all. Tactically they’re very similar and so are their flaws. Both managers have similar pros and cons. They’ve both worked with young playersand have shown a commitment to building out long term projects. Neither has won any major trophies while Ten Hag comes from a weaker league. Pochettino has struggled to manage the big egos and club politics at PSG, while Ten Hag is completely unproven in that area.
What matters most to me is a manager building something that can be sustained long term. You can’t just spend a ton of money to build a lavishly expensive core of players at their peak. That just means you’re going to have to do it all over again in three years when those players get old. That’s completely unsustainable in today’s FFP world unless you have the unlimited resources that Manchester Cityhave or you’re bringing in as much revenue through players sales as Chelsea do.
For teams with ownership models like United or Liverpool, you need to strip everything down to the ground and build a young team that can compete together for years to come. Then your focus becomes replacing or reinforcing one or two areas every season so you’re never doing it all at once. That’s far more sustainable.
This isn’t the cheap way of doing things. It’s going to cost money, but more importantly it’s going to cost time. That’s why the most important trait United’s next manager must have is patience.
I’m not talking about patience from the club. No manager will ever be successful if he’s not backed by the club and backed by the club doesn’t just mean “give him money.” It means give him the ability to see out his long term vision. Don’t extend players to “protect their value” if they’re not part of the plan. Sell players at a loss if you have to. Accept that you may need to have a rough season or two in order to win more often down the road.
I’m talking about the manager himself. Whoever the next manager is needs to not just have a plan but the patience to stick with that plan. As long as the club do their part then there won’t be any internal pressure but the most important thing is to remain patient regardless of any external pressure.
There’s always going to be external pressure. The media will always be impatient. They’ll play on that “it’s Manchester United, not winning should never happennarrative that whips people into a frenzy and gets them clicks.
There’s always going to be pressure from the fans because there will always be impatient fans. There will always be fans who are nothing more than glory hunters who started following the team during the Fergie years and don’t understand that sports are cyclical. There will always be fans who just yell about how cheap the Glazers are because they only spent £150m on transfer fees one summer instead of £350m. There will always be fans who say “we’ve gone through x amount of rebuilds over the past eight years and now they want to do another one? This is just because the Glazers are cheap and don’t want to spend money!” There will always be fans saying “Manchester United should be competing at the top every single year” because they can’t understand that sometimes the best way to be able to do that, is by not competing at the top for a year or two. Even if this is only 15 percent of the fan base, United have millions of fans and 15 percent is a lot of people.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had patience.
Until he didn’t.
Solskjaer took over a very flawed squad and knew this type of massive undertaking was what the club needed. The team was filled with aging mercenaries who didn’t necessarily want to be here. He was going to need to gut the teamand rebuild it from the ground up. It wasn’t going to be a one year ordeal, it was going to take time as he did it layer by layer, but he had the plan mapped out.
He was going to put out a young team that could form the core of his squad, grow together, and improve together. He was going to get questions answered regarding some players - can Andreas Pereirabe a contributor? Can Scott McTominay be our Matic replacement? Can Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford lead the line of a top team? From there, he’d take the next two years to add on the necessary parts, make the necessary upgrades and reinforce the depth until he had a complete squad that was ready to compete on all fronts.
He wasn’t going to try and win the league his first season. He knew that was a pipe dream. Getting this young team experience and answering questions was the priority. Qualifying for the Champions League seemed more like a potential goal than an expectation - even at the club levelThen the following summer he’d be able to bring in some more pieces to build on the foundation of his team and a year later add a few more pieces as the team continued to grow and improve together.
I have to be careful here because it’s very easy to get lost focusing on how he built his team and the signings he made, which is going down a rabbit hole that could take us all day. I want to focus on specifically, how United played football and how Solskjaer approached that.
Things got dicy right from the start. Within a few games United were decimated by injuries but Solskjaer never panicked. Very early on Solskjaer knew his young team was lacking and the best course of action was going to be sitting back and playing counter attacking football.
That of course lead to groans from some fans. They complained that Solskjaer “spoke” of playing ‘front foot attacking football,’ the more United sat back and played on the counter, the louder they would get.
That certainly created a level of ‘external’ pressure, but Solskjaer never wavered. He doubled down on that counter attacking to get points vs Liverpool, Tottenham, and Manchester City. When an injury crisis hit the club in December, he opted for the (atrocious) midfield pivot of Andreas Pereira and Fred rather than playing 17 year old James Garner to not risk stunting his development. This was the most under pressure he was in that season and yet he stayed true to himself.
Even when Bruno Fernandes arrived there wasn’t much of a change. United continued to be a mostly counter attacking side, utilizing a back threeto get wins over Chelsea and Manchester City twice. It was only when they ran through their run of fixtures vs bottom half teams in Project Restart that he started opening things up.
Throughout the 2020-21 season Solskjaer would speak about how this team was building “layer by layer.” 2019-20 utilized counter attacking to get results but now it was time to go to the next level.
In the summer of 2020 United added a few more depth pieces but somehow inexplicably didn’t add any first choice starters to a starting XI that still wasn’t totally there. Nevertheless he felt it was time to start going at teams a bit more.
That decision lasted all of a month. United were poor against Brighton and then ran back the same XI a week later in the famous 6-1 loss to Tottenham. Yes they played 60 minutes with 10 men, but Spurs were playing them off the park when it was 11v11.
Obviously the calls for Solskjaer’s head were extremely loud at this point but again he stuck to his guns. He prioritized shoring up the defense and began playing much more conservatively. This obviously annoyed a lot of people, myself included. I thought he was far too conservative in their 0-0 draw against Chelsea, and essentially left two points on the table.
As United’s defense stopped leaking, United started hitting their next gear, and we see that layer by layer approach come into play again. When Manchester City visited Old Trafford in December, United had moved past using a back three, but were still definitely not ready to go toe to toe with them. The McFred midfield started again, and we got one of our first glimpses of Paul Pogba on the left wing. United created a few chances here and there and were solid at the back but overall it was still clear who the better team was.
This was now the big game approach and guess what, fans were frustrated! Remember, United were in the midst of a winning run that ultimately saw them climb to the top of the table. City were struggling, Liverpool were very much struggling, and United weren’t! You couldn’t find a fan who didn’t believe we weren’t ready to go right up against these guys.
It was infuriating watching United go to Anfield and play an ultra compact 4-4-2 to grind out a 0-0 draw. Gary Neville tried to defend it saying “any point at Anfield is always good” but I thought this was a missed opportunity. This was Anfield but it wasn’t Anfield. It was an empty ground, all the things that make Anfield so tough weren’t there. Go out there and really test yourself!
But no matter how loud those critics got Solskjaer stayed patient. He did sorta test himself a week later when a slightly rotated United side beat a slightly-more-rotated Liverpool side in the FA Cup at Old Trafford, but a week later at the Emirates it was back to McFred with Pogba on the left wing.
For what it’s worth, Solskjaer was probably right. This team wasn’t ready to go toe to toe with the big boys. When you’re going with a layer by layer approach, it’s important to stick to that and not try to jump too many layers ahead of yourself. No matter how loud the cries from fans online were, Solskjaer never seemed to forget this.
Until he suddenly did.
The month of May was a turning point for United. All season long United’s approach in matches seemed to be along the lines of feeling out their opponents in the first half, taking and absorbing their punches while they tire out their opponents and find a weakness. Then in the second half they’d turn it on and attack that weakness. This had the unfortunate side effect of conceding a few too many goals against the run of playand going 1-0 down before blowing teams away in the second half a few too many times.
This wasn’t nearly as big a deal as many made it out to be. More often than not United were (by far) the better team over 90 minutes and leveled things up shortly after conceding.
But this most certainly not the consensus. Fans were livid that United were constantly going 1-0 down and were desperate to find a “reason” for it. “Poor mentality,” “poor coaching,” typically bore the brunt of the blame. Solskjaer was constantly asked about the “poor” starts, whether it was a thing or not it was now impossible for it not to be a thing.
A year prior Solskjaer was able to tune out that noise and keep doing his thing. Late last season he caved. Over the final few weeks of the season United started to break out of the gate faster, Edinson Cavani started starting more matches. United would go 1-0 up early in the first half, but the same combination of individual mistakes or just bad luck would still find them. Suddenly the score was back to being 1-1 only now they were just as burned out as their opponents and didn’t have any fire power to bring off the bench.
In May, Liverpool showed up to Old Trafford and Solskjaer decided this was the game to try and go toe to toe with the big boys. It was a weird decision. Not only were United missing Harry Maguire - who had been one of the league’s best centerbacks in 2021 - but this wasn’t the ailing Liverpool United faced in January. This was a much healthier team entering the match in much better form. United went 1-0 up less than 10 minutes in, and were then played off the park for the next 80 minutes.
As frustrating as it was over the winter watching United still playing conservatively in the games against the top six, this match essentially vindicated Solskjaerthat the team wasn’t ready to compete at this level yet.
Though despite vindicating Solskjaer, apparently he didn’t see it that way. Even before United signed Cristiano Ronaldo there were rumors over the summer that Solskjaer wanted to switch United to a more attacking minded 4-3-3 formation. That is despite the fact that United very much did not have the midfielders to be able to do this and it wasn’t looking like they were going to sign any.
When United signed Cristiano Ronaldo that was essentially a statement of “we think we’re ready to challenge for the title and we’re gonna have a go”
It doesn’t matter whether this was a board signing or not. When Ronaldo showed up, Solskjaer could have said we’re still not ready to just play gung ho attacking football (because that midfield) but he didn’t. He set the team up in a 4-3-3 that got demolished by Villarreal. Leicester picked them apart when they played a 4-1-4-1/4-3-3. They essentially played a 4-2-4 against Atalanta that came very close to being a disaster.
Instead of being the pragmaticmanager he had been the two years and trying to shore up the defense, Solskjaer doubled down. Three days later against Liverpool he named the same starting XI as the Atalanta match and the tactics were “let’s have a go at them.” It was honestly mind blowing how bad a decision this was and not a single person was surprised when Liverpool were 2-0 up inside of 15 minutes. Within minutes of that match kicking off it was obvious United weren’t in the same class as Liverpool.
Perhaps there was internal pressure put on him within the club. Perhaps the loud complaints that he spoke of playing front foot attacking football but was still playing defensive counter attacking football or fans constantly bemoaning playing a double pivot got to him.
I don’t know what happened but somewhere along the lines the man who preached a layer by layer approach, while tuning all that outside noise out, got impatient and tried to jump a few layers ahead before the team was ready. Not surprisingly, it didn’t go well. Also not surprisingly, that bad decision is going to have lasting long term effects on this team.
There is always going to be noise. The generation of YouTubers and FanCams who exert way too much influence and make their money by stirring up drama and whipping their large followings into an angry frenzy ensures there will always be dissent among the fan base.
Whoever the next manager is, the most important trait he can have is the ability to tune that out, believe in your project, and importantly, stay patient with it. These guys are smart enough to know things aren’t going to happen overnight. If you don’t think you’ll be at a certain point until year three, don’t let a few results earlier on make you start to rush things.
Stay patient. This is a big job, it’s going to take a lot of work and require a lot of time. If we lose patience and abandon the plan pre-maturely we’re just going to have to start over… again.
Though the whole “promotes youth” narrative is nothing more than a cliche but that’s a different post for a different time. All I’ll say is Pochettino’s record for promoting youth is wildly overrated
Even then, City have been operating with relatively the same core for five years now and just supplementing them with one or two (very expensive) players every summer
And uh, who knows how that situation is going to play out
I think Liverpool are doing a good but not great job at this (because replacing Salah and Mane ain’t easy) but it’ll be really interesting to see what happens when Klopp leaves and these guys hit the wrong side of 30
Though this will impact the ability to sign players
Anyone who truly believes Manchester United has some divine right to always win and never be bad should really look up the history of the club
Which is funny because rebuilds are expensive and United have the second highest net spend in Europe over the past seven years. Literally all the Glazers do is spend money (but like, maybe spend some more on the stadium?)
Sure there’s a lot of deadwood in the squad now but it’s amazing how quickly it’s been forgotten how much deadwood was in the squad then. Fellaini, Sanchez, Darmien, Valencia, Marcos Rojo, Smalling, Young.. he literally had to keep some of it around just to make up the numbers!
It also was very quickly forgotten how much fans believed in Pereira at the start of that season. Fans were openly clamoring for him in 2018-19 and when I said he was crap in the fall of 2019 I was still inundated with fans making excuses for him. These days everyone will say they always knew he was crap and playing him was just the Glazers being cheap.
Amazingly the answers to these questions were no, no, and no and by the end of the 2019-20 season, Soslkjaer’s actions told us he knew this as well. Then the summer came and United failed to back him with the reinforcements he needed
There was the issue with the Adidas contract if United missed the Champions League in back to back years but by February it seemed pretty safe to say Solskjaer wouldn’t be getting sacked even if United finished fifth
Look at the starting XI he put out in the 1-0 loss to Newcastle. It’s so so bad but it will never not be funny.
The back three was less choice and more injury related, he only used it when one of Anthony Martial or Marcus Rashford were out
Check that - City got off to a bad start. By December they weren’t struggling but doing a ‘slow and steady wins the race’ thing so not everyone had realized how dangerous they were yet
Liverpool lost their next five straight home games so yea, I think that point holds up
Mostly thanks to individual errors, goalazo’s, or both
I put poor in quotes because as the article explains, “poor” was based solely on results. United could play well and go 1-0 down and that was poor or they could play poorly and go to halftime 0-0, that was fine.
Though I will still be bitter about that Anfield match. There were no fans! Liverpool were in shambles and United were in form! Take a chance!
Sorry for using this trigger word. Grace Robertson wrote an excellent article last year about how Jose Mourinho ruined that word and gave it a negative connotation when in reality being “pragmatic” really just means assessing what gives your team the best chance to win.
Nice article as always Pauly. Here we go again. Heading into another rebuild. Personally, I am not too caught up on who the next manager will be since I do not have a strong preference for either front runners. Pauly, do you think that the downside of this layer-by-layer approach has in some part contributed to not signing players in positions of need because “it will do for now” McFred sometimes work? Mainly talking about the midfield situation.
Even with ignoring the external noise, mistakes will be made. No one is flawless in their approach. Ultimately, it is up to the higher structures of the club to build along with the manager. If the manager is trying to cover up certain positions like Ole did with the midfield situation, then get him a defensive midfielder. Even if the manager wants a centre back or striker as priority. Same goes for the club. If the target is some other position decided by them. The manager should have the power to veto and push for the signing they need. To a limited degree but should at least make the club consider.
Unfortunately, I do not think that the manager appointment will be this mythical person that will single handily change everything. The squad is the determining factor at the end of the day. The club must improve themselves first to reduce any fault that the next manager may have. It is a collaborative effort overall. Sometimes the manager can be wrong in their assessment of what they need. Other times, it can be the club that is wrong. As long as this can be worked out where both parties are going in the same direction. The biggest test for Manchester United will be how they navigate this going forward post Woodward.
Lastly, I am not entirely sure if we will ever get a full picture on all the aspects that went wrong this season for Ole that has caused everything to implode. I am not too convinced to pin everything on CR7 since the form of some of the players did decreased compared to last year. I feel like there is more to it than just CR7, he is a part of the problem no doubt. I wouldn't say all though.