Tuesday 22 January 2019

How Solskjaer restored the feel-good factor at Old Trafford in less than a month

United's interim manager has swept through the formerly unhappy club like a wind of change, writes James Ducker

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer speaks with his Manchester United players at a warm-weather training camp in Dubai this week. Photo: Getty
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer speaks with his Manchester United players at a warm-weather training camp in Dubai this week. Photo: Getty

James Ducker

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been putting lots of smiles back on faces at Manchester United over the past four weeks, but there was a stark reminder last Saturday that the interim manager is not there simply to play happy families.

Anyone who was in the dressing-room at half-time of United's FA Cup tie against Reading at Old Trafford to watch Solskjaer unleash his own version of Alex Ferguson's infamous "hairdryer" will have learnt very quickly that, beneath the baby-faced veneer and easy charm, lies a strong personality who will not tolerate a drop in standards.

United were leading 2-0, but Solskjaer was unhappy with what he had seen and had no hesitation in letting rip. Screaming directly into the faces of players in true Ferguson style, he unloaded for a minute or two.

Rant over and point made, the focus then switched to calmly discussing how United would tackle the second half.

The incident is instructive because while Solskjaer oozes genuine warmth and compassion and has wasted no time transforming the mood at United after Jose Mourinho's joyless, corrosive regime ended up breeding loathing, resentment and paranoia, it debunks any notion that the Norwegian might be a pushover.

That Solskjaer's tirade has not been mentioned since is also telling. Mourinho could hold a grudge for weeks, but Solskjaer will address issues head on and move on quickly. No sulking. Just grown-up management.

For players and staff alike, it is just one example of the sharp wind of change that has blown through the club since Mourinho was sacked a week before Christmas and Solskjaer and Mike Phelan, Ferguson's long-standing assistant, were appointed to rescue morale, and a season that was capitulating.

Five successive wins, a vibrant, attack-minded approach and a buoyant atmosphere have restored the feel-good factor and now comes their biggest challenge yet, with a trip to Wembley to face in-form Tottenham Hotspur tomorrow.

The presence of Mauricio Pochettino in the opposite dugout will offer a reminder that Solskjaer is at Old Trafford only on a caretaker basis.

The Tottenham head coach tops a list of permanent candidates to succeed Mourinho and a lot will have to happen between now and the end of the season to change that thinking, but Solskjaer could not have hoped to make a better first impression.

Jumped

The tone was set on his first day in the job. He jumped at an invitation to attend the club's Christmas party at Old Trafford cricket ground that night. The 500 staff present had no idea Solskjaer would be there and began serenading him with his song when he was invited on stage by executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward.

Addressing a jubilant crowd, Solskjaer told them it was his and the team's duty to put smiles on their faces and that "if you can't enjoy yourself at United, where can you enjoy yourself?"

That inclusive, family feel was evident once again in Dubai on Wednesday night when Solskjaer arranged for the entire travelling party, players included, to go for a meal at the opulent, Asian-themed Play Restaurant & Lounge on the final night of their five-day training camp in the Middle East.

The trip to Dubai was beneficial in many ways. Solskjaer used it to build up fitness levels and work on specific formations and tactics for the Tottenham game, but also next month's matches against Paris St-Germain and Liverpool at Old Trafford.

Yet it has also been an invaluable bonding exercise. Observers say training has also appeared more thorough and, crucially, more fun.

After a particularly gruelling session in 30C at the Nad Al Sheba sporting complex on Wednesday, there was initially not a great deal of appetite for some games.

But that soon changed when the squad were divided into three eight-a-side teams - academy graduates and goalkeeper David de Gea in one, another made up of older heads and a third side comprising everyone in between - and told they were playing a 'winner-stays-on' tournament.

It got so competitive that the players were pleading with the coaching staff to let them carry on when things were eventually wrapped up and the youthful side featuring the likes of Marcus Rashford, Andreas Pereira, Scott McTominay, Tahith Chong and Angel Gomes emerged triumphant and revelled in playfully mocking their senior counterparts.

It is no exaggeration that the younger players, in particular, have been hanging off Solskjaer's every word, hungry for information and encouraged by his approachable demeanour. It helps that his memory is razor sharp.

John O'Shea discovered just that on his return to Old Trafford with Reading and was reminded by Solskjaer that he captained United on the day the Irishman made his first-team debut 20 years ago. Staff have had a taste of that, too.

Some who had not seen Solskjaer for at least four years were touched that he remembered their children's names.

One coach at academy level said he had spoken more to Solskjaer in one morning than he did to Mourinho in 18 months. MUTV, United's official television station, is back on the inside after being ostracised by Mourinho.

Mourinho had lost the majority of players as long as nine months before he finally got the boot, so it was inevitable any replacement would enjoy a bounce. Yet Solskjaer's personal, empathetic touch is very quickly winning hearts and minds.

Ferguson was instrumental in bringing him back to United, even if suggestions that the former manager was invited to address the players are wide of the mark and he has no direct involvement with the team.

Yet the influence of the Scot on his former striker has been apparent, right down to the way the interim has been delivering bad news.

One player dropped in the past fortnight found Solskjaer recounting a story from his playing days about how he had been convinced he would start the next league match against Arsenal after coming off the bench to score four times in an 8-1 thrashing of Nottingham Forest in 1999, only to again find himself among the substitutes.

It was Solskjaer telling the player he understood how he felt. Another was told he would not be playing because he had a crucial role to play in the game after that and Solskjaer needed him totally fit.

Solskjaer has generally left the likes of Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna - who have become far more visible and vocal than they ever were under Mourinho - to lead training, along with Phelan and new recruit Mark Dempsey, another United old boy who worked with Solskjaer at Cardiff and during his first spell at Molde.

Solskjaer will interject when he sees fit, but it has been notable that when training finishes and the players hang around to do extras, Solskjaer stays out.

That has been most evident with the strikers on finishing exercises. For example, Solskjaer has been talking Rashford through specific examples of moments he encountered as a player to encourage the England forward to think more about his positioning, body shape, footwork and mindset.

Solskjaer has also drawn on his experiences of playing with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney.

Under Mourinho, Louis van Gaal and David Moyes, there was almost a fixation with the opposition, to the point of over-analysis.

With Solskjaer and Phelan, there has been a shift towards United focusing on their own strengths, and where they can hurt the opposition.

Players are more inclined to take risks because they know their mistakes will not be picked apart for days in front of the group.

"Ole wants the players to express what we have inside and not to be limited or restrained by sticking to any fixed positions," one dressing-room source said.

For all the scrutiny on Solskjaer, no one should underestimate the role of Phelan. The 56-year-old has proved an important buffer for Solskjaer, shielding him from much of the bureaucracy, while also serving as an invaluable sounding board for staff.

Van Gaal and Mourinho were territorial, micromanaging every last detail, and often took umbrage when colleagues were consulted before them. Endless, tedious rules that would change frequently created cliques and a culture of fear and apprehension.

All that has changed now. Solskjaer welcomes and encourages Phelan's input and ideas.

Both operate open-door policies and want everyone to feel wanted and important. United have some of their soul back.

Tottenham v Manchester United, Live, Sky Sports tomorrow 4.30

Telegraph.co.uk

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