Inexperience of United backroom begs the question – who brings the edge?
It is hard to imagine Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp or Thomas Tuchel always deferring to one of their coaching staff when it comes to the key team talk to the players the night before games.
It happens, occasionally, at Liverpool with Klopp’s assistant, Pep Lijnders, but it happens all the time at Manchester United, where the task of laying out the main tactical briefing alternates between Kieran McKenna and Michael Carrick.
Both are in their first job at this level, like Lijnders, although the crucial difference is that the latter is working under Klopp’s wing. He is his manager’s voice. Klopp is hands-on and sets out the plan.
At Manchester City and Chelsea, Guardiola and Tuchel always take the lead. They micro-manage, even if they also consult their coaching staff.
At United, Co Fermanagh native McKenna (35), who went into coaching after his playing career at Tottenham Hotspur was cut short by injury at 22, also devises and conducts coaching sessions along with Carrick, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Mike Phelan, his other assistant, observe from the sidelines.
United’s set-piece coach? That would be 29-year-old Eric Ramsay, who is a friend of McKenna, as they studied together at Loughborough University.
Ramsay arrived in the summer from Chelsea, where he had worked with their U-23s, but not as their coach.
There is a theme of inexperience that runs through United’s coaching staff, which is being exposed as the team struggle and highlights even further the shortcomings of Solskjaer as a manager.
It naturally irritates the United staff that they face the accusation of overseeing one of the most under-coached and poorly-drilled sides in the Premier League, who depend on individual moments of brilliance to get by.
But the fact is some rivals regard United as the worst-coached team, who appear unable to adapt during games.
No one could claim, right now, that any aspect of United’s team is fully functioning beyond goalkeeper David De Gea, while McKenna’s coaching sessions have been likened by some sources as more suited to academy football.
Players can quickly see through this kind of inexperience and lack of authority. Who brings the edge?
McKenna has some glowing endorsements as a coach, not least from Nicky Butt, United’s former academy director, and was poached five years ago and promoted to work with the first team by Jose Mourinho. So he is clearly talented.
Carrick’s playing career was outstanding and the 40-year-old has been on the coaching staff since retiring three years ago.
Ramsay was the youngest Briton to gain the top coaching badge, the Uefa Pro Licence, at 27. But he is untried at this level, as is Darren Fletcher, who was promoted to technical director having formerly been a first-team coach.
The tactical naivety must be placed squarely at Solskjaer’s door. The buck must stop with him, while Phelan, vastly experienced and No 2 to Alex Ferguson for the final years of his reign, seems to have become a peripheral figure.
When Phelan first returned to United, he was far more involved in the decision-making process, especially in the months when Solskjaer was still a caretaker. But that appears less the case now, even if the 59-year-old has, like the manager, recently signed a new three-year contract. Carrick and McKenna were also poised to sign new deals.
So how does Solskjaer see himself? Given he is 48, and has been a manager with Molde and Cardiff City, it is strange that he appears to think he is above coaching United.
It is said the Norwegian’s vision for his role is as more of a general manager, when what he needs to do is show whether he is capable of coaching a team.
Clearly he is heavily influenced by Ferguson’s approach, but that is misreading Ferguson’s work. Yes, he tended to take more of a back seat when it came to coaching, but that was not always the case.
It came only after he had already proven himself, had that authority and when – crucially – he employed experienced coaches such as Archie Knox, then Brian Kidd, who had already managed, Steve McClaren, who had worked as an assistant and won promotion with Derby County, Jimmy Ryan, Carlos Queiroz, Rene Meulensteen and Phelan. Ferguson also briefly turned to Walter Smith in 2004 as he wanted a seasoned coach alongside him.
“Regeneration was an everyday duty,” Ferguson wrote in his autobiography, but Solskjaer has not listened to that. He has not got the balance right.
Complacency has replaced it. He has not proven himself as a coach before earning the right to delegate in the way that Ferguson did and, in any case, he does not possess the same skill set or personality as the man he so reveres.
“Ole was a sweet-natured boy who was never looking to be confrontational with me. There was no risk to my office door from Ole wanting to smash it down to demand a place in the first XI. He knew he was content with his role,” Ferguson wrote of his former striker.
It sums up Solskjaer’s cosy regime at United, which works for him but does not work on the pitch.
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