Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s job is under scrutiny after a string of bad performances.
Former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson had few equals as a coach during his time at the club. If he tipped his hat towards an opposition manager, it was a sign that the coach is destined for greatness. Few can count themselves to be in the good books of Ferguson. Former Juventus manager Marcello Lippi was one among them. The Scot was effusive in his praise of the World Cup winner.
“Looking into his eyes is enough to tell you that you are dealing with somebody who is in command of himself,” Ferguson had written in his book, Managing My Life. “Those eyes are sometimes burning with seriousness, sometimes twinkling, sometimes warily assessing you – and always they are alive with intelligence.”
It is almost as if Manchester United fans dream of such a man as manager.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was charged to be the man who could take Ferguson’s principles and stamp them on the new Manchester United. When the former United hitman took charge on a caretaker basis in the middle of a turbulent 2018-19 campaign, there was an immediate uplift in the mood around the club and results reflected it. Fans that craved for the fast, attacking, and exciting football that Ferguson’s teams dished out week-after-week were given a watered-down version of this. After years of dour football, this was a feast for the fans.
United finished the Premier League campaign in sixth place. They also knocked out a highly-fancied PSG team in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 . Solskjaer received a permanent contract and full backing to take the club back to the glory days. Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Bruno Fernandes and Edinson Cavani came in and helped the club finish second in the Premier League in the following term. They also made semi-final and final appearances in the FA Cup and Europa League respectively. It was a sign that the club was moving back towards competing with the big clubs in England and Europe.
Fast forward to today and after the high-profile signings of Jadon Sancho, Raphael Varane and Cristiano Ronaldo, Manchester United find themselves in the same situation they were in the middle of 2018-19. There is a lack of direction and coaching. Most importantly, the drive that United players of the past had in abundance is missing. High margin victories over Newcastle and Leeds United, a roaring comeback against Villarreal were followed by chastening defeats away to Leicester City and a 5-0 thrashing by Liverpool at Old Trafford. It called into question whether the management had a plan in taking United to the top or was it just a misplaced sense of nostalgia that was keeping Solskjaer in the job?
Humiliating losses at home to Liverpool and Manchester City have sealed the final nail in the Norwegian’s coffin. The United board backed the manager to turn things around. This was despite strong links with Antonio Conte and Zinedine Zidane taking over the job. Incidentally, these are two men who were both in the all-conquering Juventus teams coached by Lippi. Both Conte and Zidane were two sides of the Lippi coin that was a feature of all the teams that he coached – team spirit and intensity. Conte’s arrival at Tottenham Hotspur leaves the Frenchman as the only realistic big-name manager left for Manchester United.
Naturally, there is much debate on the pros and cons of United hiring the former Real Madrid manager. Do the club prioritize winning over the long-term aim of building the team? Does this team need someone who can handle the big egos in the dressing room and not antagonize them? Does this team need more coaching? Can the Frenchman deliver that elusive trophy to the club?
Very few players have the CV that Zinedine Zidane possesses. He has won possibly every trophy at club and international level. He is one of the players to win the Champions League title both as a player and manager. Like Solskjaer, he replaced a full-time manager at Real Madrid mid-way through a season. He led them to three consecutive Champions League titles, something no other manager has achieved so far.
All these title wins had Ronaldo as a key factor, as the Frenchman found a way to keep his ageing star fresh for key matches and kept Real Madrid competitive at the domestic level as well. It is easy for fans to draw parallels and believe that Zidane will be the perfect fit at Manchester United. One of the key reasons why the tactician was able to extract the most out of that Real Madrid team, was the fact that the club had a strong core group of players and a leadership group, that could grab others by the scruff of their necks if they were under-performing and squeeze out results.
Los Blancos had built this side over years with each area of the pitch having star names. The midfield axis of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro was a constant feature till Zidane’s tenure in 2020. The defence marshalled by Sergio Ramos and Varane was ever-present. Karim Benzema and Ronaldo single-handedly won games when the opposition did not allow a way through.
Emphasizing physical conditioning
Zidane’s stature as a player both at the club and international level demanded respect. He was able to get all these parts working in a harmonious manner. It is not to say that Zidane did not introduce his own methods into the team to get them to perform better. Zidane brought in Antonio Pintus, Ventrone’s assistant during his time at Juventus, as Real Madrid’s fitness coach in his first full pre-season as the club’s coach.
Pintus has a history as a competitive 800m and 1500m athlete. He has done his academic thesis on the modern marathon. His tough methods earned him the nickname “The Whip” in Spain. It allowed the team to win a league and European Cup double in the 2017-18 season.
Like Conte, he would emphasize physical conditioning to be the absolute base for a top performance from a player. His reputation as a player and manager will not have diminished. He can leverage this to bring United’s players to up their performances on the pitch. His relationship with Cristiano Ronaldo was key in their triumphs at Madrid. Varane’s presence will also help in transmitting his message across to the rest of the team.
Cons of hiring Zidane
Where Zidane can falter is the fact that Manchester United currently do not have the same calibre of players he had at his disposal at Madrid. It would probably entail a further waiting period for fans as he moulds the team to his liking, before they eventually start winning.
If Zidane gets the Old Trafford job, it would certainly be an upgrade on Solskjaer. This is both in terms of title-winning credentials and on the commercial front. However, the question as to whether he can instill the winning culture at the club remains to be seen.