Ole Gunnar Solskjaer exclusive: The blueprint to success at Manchester United
Like Klopp and Guardiola, Solskjaer wants to instill a culture of acceptance around making mistakes high up the pitch; Watch Manchester United vs Southampton on Monday Night Football from 7.30pm; Kick-off 8pm
Last Updated: 13/07/20 8:00pm
Think of a successful football team, and mistakes don't come to mind. Triumph comes from being drilled, faultless, always picking the best option, knowing your role with a radar-like awareness, punctuated by technical ability.
Premier League players shouldn't make mistakes, especially not those at elite clubs. Correct? Not strictly.
Premier League managers are challenging this and proving its inaccuracy by winning titles. The freedom to make mistakes in the opposition half has been part of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola's narrative for years. Once their players get to a certain position on the pitch, it's up to them. Try what you want, because that area of the pitch is too chaotic and unpredictable for rules. The more you try, and the more mental options available, the more likely something will hit.
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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is no different, and the last three-and-a-half weeks of football suggest he's getting it right.
Manchester United have become the first Premier League side to win four straight games by a three-goal margin; each win and all 14 goals have been through bold attacking play, trying this, trying that, and not sweating over a misplaced pass in the final third.
"In the first two or three moments after you win the ball, can you go forward?" he tells Sky Sports ahead of the Monday Night Football clash with Southampton at Old Trafford. "Can you go straight at them? If you lose the ball, don't worry about it! You are so close to them, you can win it back. It has been so great to see the attitude of: 'OK, I will try, and if I don't succeed I will just go and win the ball back!'
"It's fantastic for me to see them express themselves, because that's a Manchester United team. We need to take chances, take risks, be brave, and most of the time you will reap the rewards if you are brave. We need to keep that mentality and bravery going forward."
The benefits of this environment, where mistakes aren't internally punished, are limitless. It means confidence is harder to break, it means you try things you wouldn't usually, and for United, it means breaking down teams who sit deep. A rigid attack often stalls.
It has been the blueprint to Klopp and Guardiola's success, and if Solskjaer is to succeed, it will be the basis of his.
But that habitat is difficult to build. We are taught from a young age - from school, parents, coaches - that mistakes carry punishment or derision, but Solskjaer has been building this culture at United since being confirmed as manager. In October he told me that culture was a work in progress, and though it is ever-evolving, the results are becoming clearer. It has been difficult at times, and he thanks Manchester United for the faith shown.
"We went through some difficult spells, especially around that time in October, and the club have been very good with us, they've kept in touch with us and have seen and known what we're doing, and they've believed in what we're doing.
"We were allowed to keep making the decisions without thinking about what could have been. They knew our ambition, what we want here, the environment we want here, which will then be the foundation for moving up the table."
Like Klopp and Guardiola, Solskjaer has non-negotiables. As far as the Norwegian is concerned, hard work is a choice, something you can turn on and leave on, and its efficiency is easier to control.
We went through some difficult spells, especially around that time in October, and the club have been very good with us... We were allowed to keep making the decisions without thinking about what could have been.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
"To have the right mindset is a choice. You cannot choose not to give 100 per cent. You cannot choose to think: 'Oh no, I'm not going to run after the ball.' You can have the right mindset before the game to think: 'I'm going to be a Manchester United player, I'm going to take risks, I'm going to be brave, I've got to try and make a difference in the right areas of the pitch, and if it doesn't work, so what?' What's the worst thing that can happen, you lose the ball and you try to win it back!"
Comparing this season's numbers with last season's, Solskjaer's culture is visible.
Try more > fail more > fight more
|(Per game)||18/19 (From Dec 18)||19/20|
|Passes ending in final third||147||160.5|
|Possession won in final third||3||4|
They're trying more high up the pitch, which inevitably means they are losing it more high up the pitch. The heads-up mentality, where losing the ball prompts a chase to win it back, rather than a strop, is also clear to see. Their recoveries are up, as is their ability to win the ball in the final third.
It helps having six players in front of an improving defence with a point to prove. Bruno Fernandes' honeymoon shows no sign of fading, and somewhat surprisingly Paul Pogba looks more comfortable not being the main man, with Nemanja Matic clearing up any mess behind him and earning a new contract in the process. Both Pogba and Matic's current standing seemed an impossibility just a few months ago.
The front three looks equally cohesive. Mason Greenwood, 18 and devastating, is showing little sign of the rawness you expect from a talent his age. His 16 United goals have been a variety bag of treats - he's already scored more types of goals than many seasoned strikers - and he represents the fearless attitude Solskjaer wants to instil.
"I think when you are that age you have no fear whatsoever. Mason goes out there, enjoys playing and does what he does. He's done that since he was a kid. He's been in this club his whole footballing life, and he has been taught and coached, but also has taught himself good habits about receiving the ball on the half-turn, if you want to turn a defender inside or outside. It's the same with Anthony (Martial) and Marcus (Rashford), they all have that type of positive demeanour and mindset. To me, that's football.
"I think the front three did a lot of good work in the lockdown to be physically ready. They are known as technical players, skilful players, but the first thing we always ask for is that mentality and humility to work hard. That comes first, and then all their skills and qualities in front of goal come. They create chances for themselves with their pressing and movement, it's not just their skills."
Lately, Rashford has shown how effective he can be even without scoring - he is rarely a passenger in any United attack - while Martial is finding a position that suits him. More importantly for Solskjaer, the Frenchman is putting a shift in.
"I've been very pleased with Anthony. You can see his work rate, his foundation. There were some stats last season on our strikers, and he's really taken up the challenge and answered the questions I asked of work rate. We have to start from the front with our pressing, and he's really taken that on board.
"Marcus is still a young boy developing, too. All three of them can see a pass, can play a pass, they can score, they are physical, they can make runs and create chances for others. We are trying to develop them all of the time; this isn't a one-day thing, or a 'sometimes' thing, this is about creating good habits."
Solskjaer has been consistent with his messaging throughout his time as manager. He's never too high, never too low, and gives weight to process, mentality and culture. The blueprint is clear, and results have come of late, but Solskjaer's definition of success is different, and he is keen to stress United have achieved nothing yet.
"Of course, when you keep getting results and you can see progress in the way we play, you are happy. Then again, we've had to have this run to be in a chance to achieve what we want to achieve this season, because we've achieved nothing so far.
"We haven't won any trophies. But success going forward is to keep improving the team, keep developing, because it is not the destination that is the measure of success, really, it is what we do.
"With results, you can't always say that life is fair, because it isn't. Sometimes you don't get the result you deserve in football, but if we keep doing the right things, improving every single day, then we will end up hopefully as a successful Manchester United team."
Watch Manchester United vs Southampton on Monday Night Football from 7.30pm; Kick-off is 8pm