What is a football club? It’s not a rhetorical question, and it’s one I keep returning to over the years. Most recently it was when Wayne Rooney, my beloved childhood idol and star member of the “good but not quite as good as he could have been” club, departed Manchester United after 13 glorious, record-breaking seasons in the summer of 2017. Rooney was the first player I ever loved – I’d had a brief dalliance with Henry (too much Gallic sophistication) and Cristiano (too inhumanly perfect), but Rooney, this stocky irrepressible terrier of a player who would pound over every blade of grass for the team every time he played, but still couldn’t avoid the occasional pint and cigarette, was the first footballer I loved passionately. Fans love the players they see themselves in – and even when his touch deserted him and his legs lost that explosive pace, you could still see a giddy and delirious 16-year-old in Rooney’s wide-open smile every time he scored a goal.
Rooney’s career drew a line in the sand from when I started following Man Utd right up to the moment he left. It hit me even harder than when Sir Alex Ferguson retired as the manager in 2013. It left me, as well as millions of other fans, I imagine, contemplating an uncertain future. The six years since the end of the Fergie era have been as bad as many of us feared – not for the lack of success (there have been a few cups), but for a sense of something missing, of trapped energies, of United being not-quite-United anymore. When even Rooney left, I asked myself if I still cared. What is Manchester United to me anymore?
A New Hope
It used to be said of Sir Alex’s best teams that Manchester United never lose, they simply run out of time. It is that quote that I thought of when I saw Ole Solskjaer’s team beat the Imperial Stormtroopers (otherwise known as PSG) 3-1 at the Parc des Princes in Paris and progress to the Champions League quarter-finals on away goals.
That made it 14 wins and 2 draws out of 19 matches since the Norwegian took over on 19th December, like a burst of mold-busting sunshine after the needling toxicity of the Mourinho years. And throughout the match, even when PSG equalised through Juan Bernat, I felt deep down that United would prevail. You know that feeling you get sometimes about your team, when you can see that they’re in the zone, they’ve got their tails up, when you just know without knowing how, with no sense of rhyme or reason, that your team was tapping into something deeper, not just athletic ability, but into fate and destiny itself, and that they would definitely win?
That might seem far too bombastic for what is essentially a football match between two corporate behemoths, but you feel what you feel and the club, to put it mildly, feels different. The club’s 2008 Champions League-winning captain Rio Ferdinand mentioned on an interview recently how everyone at the club from the kitchen staff to the kit-men are all re-energized and smiling again, how legendary ex-players now regularly go to Carrington to meet the players to rebuild that lost sense of continuity, and how the players themselves are playing to the fullest expression of their prodigious talent. United are now in fourth place, two points ahead of Arsenal, and on course to achieve the “miracle” of top 4 in the league, as Mourinho described it just a couple of months ago, and guarantee Champions League football for next season. They have already beaten PSG, Spurs, Arsenal and Chelsea away from home under Ole. Even Andy Tate, the florid-faced, foul-mouthed Man Utd fan, who became infamous for his “biggest fool in Manchester” rant about David Moyes in 2014, and who is so often the emotional bellwether for the mood around the club and the fans, said recently that he had enjoyed the last 3 months under Ole more than he had the previous 6 years combined, and that it felt like a family atmosphere again, the bond between fans and players renewed.
Now, United’s last two managers, Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal, are, by any objective metric, massively influential, multiple league-and-Champions League-winning legends of European football. Hundreds of millions have been spent on getting them the star players they wanted, from Angel di Maria and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to Paul Pogba. Yet Solskjaer, in a matter of weeks and having spent no money on transfers, has arguably affected the outlook of the club far more than his predecessors did. How exactly has the ex-Molde manager and former United striker done it, and what does it all mean?
“I don’t remember Freud winning a Champions’ League final.”
The first thing Solskjaer changed tactically when he came into the club was to institute a compact medium-to-high pressing block. What, exactly, does that mean? Football is essentially about controlling spaces on the pitch, and broadly speaking, there are two ways to do it – reactive and proactive. Reactive football, especially in the Jose Mourinho model, defends space with physicality – you pack your own half with imposing players, invite pressure and attack your opponent’s weaknesses when they are unbalanced, with swift counterattacks. This form of football minimises the probability of an opponent scoring against you, but it also hurts your own chances to score, every game reduced to an unappealing game of tactical chess.
Proactive football instead hunts for the ball. In the words of the revered Italian manager Arrigo Sachhi, the longitudinal distance between your centre-forward and your centre-back must be no more than 25 metres. By compressing the space between your team, and by pressing high, you effectively reduce the size of the pitch – the forwards aggressively harry the man in possession to deprive him of time on the ball, the midfielders block off the passing lanes to other players, and the defenders push up high to deny any space for a dangerous run. Also by winning the ball higher up the pitch, you have many more chances to score yourself. It is however a risky tactic – if the intensity of pressing falls, if someone slips or makes a mistake, the opponents have acres of space behind your defenders, to launch a long ball into for a counterattack. Proactive football trusts the players to do their job, regardless of the opposition, and it is here that the philosophical differences between Mourinho and Solskjaer become starkly clear.
There is an illuminating quote from Provided You Don’t Kiss Me, the biography of double European Cup-winning manager of Nottingham Forest, Brian Clough, where he takes issue with Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life, and talks about his philosophy of man-management. “I can tell, from the moment I see someone in the dressing room… who needs lifting, who needs his arse kicked, and who needs leaving alone to get on with it. The art of management is knowing your own players… (not) whether someone has a better right foot than left, or can’t head the ball for toffee, but what kind of person they are.” Clough talks about reassuring his players before the match, “You’re in the team because you’re good enough, son.” As most psychologists today agree, this sort of positive affirmation is crucial to good performance, whether in a football match or in a 9-to-5 job, with a combination of the stick and the carrot. Compare this to late-period Mourinho, his training-ground spat with Pogba over an Instagram story, his regular bullying of Luke Shaw for apparently lacking “a football brain”, his constant dissatisfaction, and you see what a change the new manager presents – Solskjaer who talks about his players like a kid opening his Christmas presents, Solskjaer who thinks injuries to first-team players are just a great chance for younger kids to showcase their abilities rather than an excuse to whine, Solskjaer who knows exactly when to challenge his players and when to defend them.
But, in a sense, the reason Solskjaer has revitalized Manchester United so thoroughly goes deeper than a few tactical tweaks or putting an arm around the shoulder of disaffected players – it cuts to the heart of identity and cultural memory and the history of a club.
What does it all mean?
Remember how at the beginning of the article, I talked about my loss of faith, and wondered whether I would even care to support Man Utd anymore once Rooney and the Boss had left? Here’s the thing – I stayed. In the end, I had no choice. Footballing loyalty, as Nick Hornby wrote, was “less like a moral choice like kindness or bravery, but more like a wart or a hump, something you’re stuck with”. Owners and stadiums change, managers retire or get sacked, players transfer out, but the fans stay. And fans remember. Football is essentially a collective endeavour, both for players and fans – almost every club in the Premier League has its roots in a local pub or a church. The scholar Patrick Chabal talks about how to be human (or in this case, a fan) is to belong not only to yourself, but to your community as well – the community itself isn’t static, but constantly renews itself through ritual, and acts as memory-keeper. Fans pass on the stories and the legends, they sing the songs, they make up what is often known as the culture of a club. And by some weird alchemy of cultural memory, that oral myth-making finds resonance on the field of play. We forget that the players are fans too.
Now a club’s traditional culture isn’t everything, but it is one of those things that is notoriously difficult to replicate. It often takes a generational manager (or three) to build a culture – Busby and Ferguson at United, Shankly and the Boot Room at Liverpool, Helenio Herrera at Inter Milan, the Robson-Cruyff-Van Gaal BarcAjax dynasty – giants with the force of personality to bend the destiny of a club to their will. No one knows the exact recipe for success in football but if a club already has an ingrained culture, it is wise to nurture and accommodate it. Even Mourinho had his greatest success at Inter, where half a century before him, Helenio Herrera had created the all-conquering Grande Inter team who invented the catenaccio style of defensive football.
Would Guardiola have done as well at Barcelona if he hadn’t already been the midfield lynchpin of Johan Cryuff’s European Cup-winning Dream Team and thoroughly schooled in the tiki-taka traditions that the Camp Nou takes for granted? Would Zidane have commanded the respect of the star-studded Real Madrid dressing room as manager if he hadn’t already been the most galactic of galacticos in the del Bosque-era Real team that swept all before them? Would England have won the penalty shootout against Colombia at the Russia World Cup if their manager Gareth Southgate hadn’t suffered through his own penalty humiliation as a player at Euro 1996, and knew how to prepare his players? Ole Gunnar Solskjaer became immortal to Man Utd fans the day he scored the injury-time winner against Bayern Munich to win the treble – the greatest achievement in British club football. And ever since he walked back into the club, everything he has done has been in service of the traditions embedded in “the walls of this club” – backing young academy players, taking the game to the opposition, being fearless. Bringing back coaches like Mike Phelan, who helped the club win everything under Ferguson, or changing the manager’s seat in the dugout to what it used to be during the Fergie era, aren’t just cosmetic nostalgia – it is a reminder of the history of the club and the standards expected of the current generation.
Being a football fan is its own kind of immortality – I felt the same exhilaration watching my team beat PSG as many fans must have felt watching their team beat Bayern in 1999 or Benfica in 1968. The catharsis, the vindication, the signs of progress we seek in our messy, chaotic lives get mirrored and reflected in 90 minutes of condensed action. Decades of history, of loss and joy, boiled down to one kick, one touch, one guy standing over a ball, 12 yards from goal. We see ourselves in the teams we support, we urge them to win, because if they do, maybe one day we can too, in a different country, in a different life, doing very different things. And this Man Utd team and their ever-smiling Norwegian boss have made me believe, oh how they’ve made me believe. So I’ll remember them like this, in their moment of giddy joy, when they made us all believe in second chances.