Like Amavubi, Man Utd’s real problem is not in the dugout

Like Amavubi, Man Utd’s real problem is not in the dugout
Like Amavubi, Man Utd’s real problem is not in the dugout

Africa-Press – Rwanda. Some of my friends have accused me of not giving Ole Gunnar Solskjaer a chance as Manchester United manager from the word go. And, I am guilty as charged. I knew it was a terrible mistake the moment Solskjaer was appointed the manager after presiding over a ‘new manager bounce’ run (in interim capacity) following Jose Mourinho’s unceremonious departure.

I immediately knew that by installing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – a Manchester United legend and 1999 hero – as club manager, the Glazer family and their fixer-in-chief Ed Woodward were manipulating the fans.

And, by doing so, they successfully managed to distract attention from the real challenges that have dogged United since the final years of the great Sir Alex Ferguson. Also, the owners and their lapdogs led by Ed Woodward wanted a manager that would toe the line, not another hard-headed Jose Mourinho or Louis van Gaal.

But there was another camp pushing for Ole’s appointment; Sir Alex Ferguson and others who believed that he represented continuity of the ethos from the Ferguson era (youth football and attacking tradition). So, both centres of power were interested in handing the most difficult job in world football to Ole, albeit for different reasons.

Superficial form, distractions and manipulation

Suddenly, the Glazer and Woodward PR machine, as well as Solskjaer’s former teammates, moved into overdrive, praising the Norwegian for banishing the toxic environment left behind by Mourinho and how Pogba, Martial and Shaw were smiling again. Suddenly, smiles and likable persona became key conditions for a manager – so much no one was ready to look at Ole’s previous managerial record in the Premier League when he led Cardiff into relegation before they sacked him following another poor run of results in the Championship.

Now, that Mourinho’s relationship with some players had broken down badly, his dismissal naturally spurred several players leading to that run of positive results soon after Ole’s arrival. But that form was superficial – today, Pogba, Martial and Shaw look more like the lethargic players they were during the final days of Mourinho, if not worse.

These particular three players have been as divisive among Manchester United fans as Ole and Mourinho have, and all this plays into the hands of the Glazers because it means no one pays attention to the real issues afflicting the club.

Well, finally, three years later, the inevitable has happened. United have fired the man who many, bizarrely, believe achieved the most with the club in the post-Ferguson era despite not delivering a single trophy even with the kind of backing his predecessors could only dream of.

‘Baby-Faced Assassin’ betrayed?

By the time of his sacking, Ole had lost the the faith of many of his diehard supporters, and even some of his mates in the world of punditry. Fans finally turned on him in that embarrassing 4-1 thumping away to Watford, booing their beloved ‘Baby-Faced Assassin’ as he sheepishly walked toward the away section to acknowledge their support and offer an apology. I felt sorry for him that moment, knowing he was only a victim of circumstances because, besides him not being the right man for the unenviable task of taking United back to their glory days, he really never seemed to be in charge. Neither did he look comfortable throughout that painful tenure at the helm.

Once again, by keeping Ole in the dugout until almost all of the fans realised he was out of his depth and needed to go, Man Utd’s bosses managed to distract attention from the real issues, with fans again directing their anger at the wrong man. Another manager thrown under the bus.

And, I am not absolving Ole of responsibility. Which other manager would have a club break the bank to buy the brilliant Jadon Sancho and Donny van de Beek only to bench them? Eleven by Ole’s standards – and they’re pretty low, I mean they’re Molde-ish, really.

Clarity of vision and Sir Alex Ferguson

Now, like the successive chickenhearted head coaches of Amavubi of Rwanda, Manchester United managers are shackled and incapacitated by a lack of clear vision and direction at the corporate level of the club. Looking from afar, you see an organisation that identifies itself primarily as a football club but in reality increasingly prioritises its commercial interests over football. Since the arrival of the Glazers nearly two decades ago, they have increasingly put the football side of things on the back burner. It appears that the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson who may still be favouring football over commercial interests have increasingly ceded ground to the Glazers. Yet, they have conveniently been retained as smokescreen, increasingly toothless football figureheads standing between the capitalist owners and sometimes-suspicious fans.

It’s easy to point out that Manchester have recently spent big on a good mix of exciting, young and experienced players, but most of them were brought in with commercial interests in mind or in frantic bid not to miss out on top-four, which meant missing out on Champions League money.

Indeed, Ole has finally been shown the exit door after it became clear the club faced a real risk of missing out on the Champions League places (there are six points between them and fourth placed West Ham). If United had won on Sunday and closed the gap on top four, Ole would have stayed on. Even if never looked capable of competing with Thomas Tuchel, Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp.

So what’s the way forward, you may ask. The answer lies not in football, but in the concept of organisational management. United need to go back to the drawing board, and redefine their vision and objectives. They need to streamline their football and commercial departments and make sure each reinforces the other as opposed to pulling in different directions. Yet, this is not something you can achieve overnight, it requires overhauling existing systems and structures. It involves stepping on toes and even getting rid of change resistors. Maybe the Glazers. And even the hugely revered Sir Alex Ferguson.

Enter Cristiano Ronaldo…

For instance, there is a need to realise that football has changed and that you can do little about that. Certain philosophies and traditions belong in the past and people like Ferguson who represent that past may not be the right people to champion the much-needed transformation process. They are not the ones to deliver the future that United fans are demanding.

A clear vision and direction for the club would lead to clear goals. They should unambiguously decide on what is their number one priority between football and commercial interests. Even though success in one would normally unlock the potential of the other.

To help illustrate how the club has lost direction, for example, look no further than Cristiano Ronaldo’s homecoming. Yes, CR7 is still pretty much a top player despite his advanced age and is scoring goals but it’s not the primary reason why Ferguson made that decisive last-minute call. He didn’t want him to go to United’s cross-city rivals, it would have bruised his ego. And so, from the footballing side of things, much as CR7 is scoring crucial goals, his much-heralded return to Old Trafford was largely because of his past association with the club and the nostalgia it evokes. Like Edison Cavani, Ronaldo does not represent that much-touted rebuild that Ole and his backers promised.

Yet, in the capitalist world of Ed Woodward and the Glazers, Ronaldo, 36, was, first and foremost, a commercial brand that would shore up shares. They viewed his return as a coup, businesswise. Equally crucial for this camp, Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford was another welcome distraction, knowing that fans would immediately wallow in nostalgia and be eternally grateful that their idol had not joined the noisy neighbours.

Wobbling Mashami and Ole’s broken wheels

Therefore, in both cases, Ronaldo’s performance on the pitch was far from being the top consideration. Fortunately for the fans, he’s a winner driven by an obsession with individual success, which is why his arrival was always going to pile more pressure on Ole and it probably accelerated the former’s demise.

While in the case of Amavubi there is no strategy and no sense of direction whatsoever, at Manchester United, there is a lack of strategy cohesion, clear priorities and a unified sense of direction. The longer they fail to identify and fix the real problems and only keep focusing on symptoms (such as coaches/ managers), the harder it’ll be to come back from their respective messy situations. Today it seems neither of them can articulately say where they see themselves in five, 10 years from now.

While Vincent Mashami hobbles on, uncertain of his future with Amavubi, Ole’s broken wheels have fallen off, leaving Manchester United worse off than he found them and it’s likely we’ll be saying the same thing when the next manager is also gone.

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