Ole Gunnar Solskjær (third from the left) with HiMolde students at Aker stadium in February 2018. Archive photo: Aneta Grabmüllerova

Ole’s Formula?

Before I try to explore aspects of Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s management philosophy at Manchester United, let me set the scene.

By SEAMUS KELLY, assistant professor at University College Dublin

Professional football management is a result-based industry where chronic insecurity, vulnerability, rejection and a psychological fear of failure are prominent characteristics of managers’ daily lives. At Manchester United, the recently retired Sir Alex Ferguson, his replacements and the managerial performance of Ole Gunnar Solskjær have attracted considerable global attention and raised several intriguing observations.

While fans will debate Ole’s success, in terms of results, my interest concerns how he implemented incremental, yet significant, managerial changes that seem to have had such a dramatic impact on the mood at Old Trafford, team cohesion and playing style. I compare Ole to his former manager and arguably one of the greatest, Sir Alex Ferguson. This is important because, Sir Alex Ferguson did not build a team, he built a club with a unique identity, which every employee, from tea ladys to team captains, felt a part of. Arguably, Ole has learned from his previous managerial experiences, reflected on his playing experience under Sir Alex, and implemented a number of key managerial decisons.

First, the appointment of Mike Phelan assisted him in re-engaging with the club’s culture, the assessment and selection of players and support in terms of managing upwards as well as downwards.

Second, media reports have suggested Ole distributed staff gifts from Norway, turned up unannounced and spoke at club banquets, and has taken the time to conduct numerous conversations with all the adminsistrative staff members on his first few days. Like Sir Alex, Ole is proably the first to arrive and the last one to leave the club. Arguably, Ole adopts a participative style of management by engaging, supporting and communicating with non-playing staff: this generates loyalty and support.

Third, Ole’s decision to invite members of the youth team to attend first team training sessions would have sent an immediate and powerful message designed to engage every young player at the club. We know that promoting talented young players and seeing them develop was a key part in how Sir Alex shaped the club’s identity.

The Role of the Professional Football Manager by Seamus Kelly, 2017.

While Ole hasn’t had the opportunity to sign new players, he has rebuilt and restructured the team in terms of playing style. The impact of Ole’s input towards the evaluation of squad and the identification of new signings for next year would have sent shockwaves throughout the team. This news has important motivational consequences for professional players at the club. I would have loved to witness the first training session after this news broke. Any player that may have not fully bought into his management philosophy would suddenly be pushing themselves even more to impress the manager in training. The impact of this increased intensity and competiveness in training would have considerable impacts on performances in subsequent games. Regardless of whether Ole is appointed as manager, his involvement in the decision-making process of which players are going to be retained, developed or sold would have had a serious impact. The job of a manager is to inspire players to become better, not just technically and tactically, but make them winners and better people. Because Ole understands the modern player’s mindset, I would argue he utilised key aspects of man management.

I would argue in his first speech to the players, Ole would probably have challenged the players (individually and/or collevtively) in terms of standards, values and behaviour and questioned their contribution to the team. Sir Alex instilled and reinforced specific values such as honesty, attitude, work ethic and a desire to win and never give up. These values can be witnessed on the pitch in terms of tracking runners and lost causes, pressing high, general work rate in training sessions and in games.

Arguably, Ole may have tried to reinforce how demonstration of these values would underpin team selection decisions. This is important because what you see in training manifests itself in competitive games. Perhaps, Ole might have been a little more subtle by challenging players with statements like ‘prove it to yourself, not me, that you have earned the privilege to play for Manchester United’. Challenging a player’s identity as a professional football player can be extremely powerful. Implicit in challenging players is an expectation that they will be intrinsically motivated to adopt behaviours and values that reinforce their identity as a professional footballer. It is well known that the behavioural standards and values established by Sir Alex, and displayed daily by the players, significantly contributed to the success of the team.

At the top levels in professional football, nothwithstanding certain levels of technical ability and decision-making expertise, world-class players are star players because they work hard every single day. However, various leadership styles are required to motivate and engage the current crop of professional players. The traditional, authoritarian style of management, prevalent in the 1990’s and 2000’ has not been completely replaced; players still need to be disciplined and need to know who is in control.

However, there is evidence that Ole is utilising a more transformational and individualized style of leadership with certain players. While some players would have been told a few home truths behind closed doors, a more player-centred, empathetic approach with other players would facilitate greater connections with their needs. This is important because we know that individualized managerial approaches impact players’ engagement. Successful managers are aware of how each player is unique, and knowing absolutely every aspect of a player’s background considerably improves their ability to manage them.

In terms of engaging players in training sessions, I’m sure problem based learning, game-based scenarios are utilised. Perhaps, Ole engages players by incorporating their input, at some level, into various aspects of proposed styles of play, set pieces and team formations against forthcoming opposition. One thing though is non-negotiable in training sessions; good habits such as honesty and good old-fashioned work ethic.

In terms of their playing style, it appears that Man United are adopting a similar philosophy to when Sir Alex was manager. The players seem to be playing a little more aggressively and taking a few risks particularly at key moments in the game.

Let me finish with what I would argue is one considerably important aspect of management in professional football; managing the dressing room. Most managers are aware of the importance of maintaining equity within the team in terms of wages, bonuses and in particular, preferential treatment towards star players. Open channels of communication, squad rotation, clarification of playing roles and behavioural expectations may assist in alleviating perceived inequities and facilitate team cohesion. Ole would be acutely aware of the potential imbalance of power, individual differences and cliques within the dressing room. This is an extremely difficult situation to manage and arguably one of his greatest achievements; his ability to alleviate insecurities and manage any potential individual animosity that existed between players.

Certainly, one of Ole’s significant achievements is how his style of management may have dealt with the behaviour of allegedly problem players and the possible influence these problem players may have on squad cohesion. Relatedly, the successful managers possess an understanding of the knowledge, skills and methods that facilitate an observation of a player’s behaviour. As a player under Sir Alex, Ole would be acutely aware of his manager’s observation skills. Sir Alex observed absolutely everything on the training ground, in the dressing room and elsewhere. This observation of dressing room cliques and player interactions was a crucial aspect of management that Sir Alex employed.

In conclusion, only a research interview with Ole and his players would substantiate some of the assumptions I have made. However, in the meantime, let’s enjoy the impact Ole has had on Manchester United.

Dr. Seamus Kelly is an assistant professor at University College Dublin. Much of his research focuses on aspects of player, coach and manager assessment and development. Kelly is also a former professional footballer who played as a goalkeeper for teams as UCD  and Cardiff City.