With all the talk of what potential signings could come in for Manchester United next season, as well as how the team might line-up both in terms of personnel and shape, it can be easy to forget that the coaching staff will have just as big a part to play in establishing a blueprint for future success.
Although Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been permanent the manager for over a full season now, his project is still in its relative infancy. He has brought in a combination of top Premier League talent and promising, young, British players, and besides further filling out the squad, I think a shrewd next step would be to look at the coaching setup and how it can be optimised to make the most of the teams collective potential.
If you look back at that first incredible unbeaten run when Ole took charge as interim manager, it was more than just ‘new manager bounce’ – winning streaks like that take more than just luck. Not only were there five-goal thrashings against the likes of Cardiff, but there was also hard-fought, tactical triumphs against Spurs and, yes, a bit of luck too.
Those first twelve games showcased every kind of positive result, including those when you scrape through by the skin of your teeth – none more so than that famous night in Paris that came shortly after.
However, during this period, the focus felt almost less on the players and more on the bench. With every goal, the camera quickly turned to Ole and co, celebrating and congratulating one another as if every single move had been rehearsed to perfection. The point is, those victories were a team effort not just in the sense of the players on the pitch, but because each member of the coaching staff brought something to the overall game plan, and I believe this relationship should be nurtured.
Whilst Carrick often falls under the umbrella of most underrated players – his footballing brain saw greater recognition towards the end of his career and, as is often the way, is certainly more appreciated now he’s retired. Thankfully, his ability to read the game and dictate the tempo of a match couldn’t be put to better use, given the calibre of midfielders he has to work with at United.
Fred has already seen massive improvement – a strong candidate for the club’s player of the season – and his most natural project (at least on paper) in Scott McTominay, is already showing the solid and diligent qualities that Carrick will only further accentuate. However, his most interesting challenge will certainly be Paul Pogba.
Whilst Bruno Fernandes hasn’t put a foot wrong since his arrival, his output seems almost exclusively attacking; Pogba is still talked about as the ‘complete’ midfielder, at least in potential. He combines natural ability and ingenuity with physicality and athleticism; the problem is, he hasn’t hit the levels of consistency at United needed to live up to this reputation yet.
Pogba often struggles to stick to the basics and play simple, and whilst I would never discourage a player’s flair, much like Fergie’s dispute with Nani, he can can sometimes come across as indulgent and run unnecessary risk. If Carrick can get him to find the balance between control and creativity, we might finally get the Pogba we’ve been dreaming of – the kind we saw at the 2018 World Cup.
Turning now to Kieran McKenna. His greatest strength is, arguably, his connection to the youth setup. Not only does his presence on the bench create a great sense of continuity between the academy and senior squad, but he also has a deeper knowledge of the younger players breaking into the first team and where their talents lie.
The value of this cannot be overstated, given that many academy products like Marcus Rashford, McTominay, and even still the emerging Mason Greenwood, Brandon Williams etc, are so clearly part of Ole’s long-term vision. It isn’t just that he has coached these boys at various different levels, it’s that his inclusion in this current coaching configuration, echoes the sentiment that they are all contributing to a bigger project that is being built around the team as a whole.
Moreover, McKenna isn’t just a familiar face. Like Carrick, it has been reported by several sources over the past couple of years that he is one of the primary tacticians in the coaching set-up, rigorously studying each opposition in order to inform pre-match preparations. Many inside the club believe he is among the best young coaches in the country, so it only seems sensible to not only keep him at the club but continue to integrate his coaching style into United’s style of play.
As for Mike Phelan, his value to the side shouldn’t need much convincing. He is more than just the last remaining stalwart from the old guard, he is a man with decades of experience playing, coaching and deputising as Fergie’s right-hand man. Moreover, he wasn’t just an extension of authority, simply there to enforce the party line: he helped coach and develop the teams that went on to dominate the Premier League for the better part of 20 years.
Whilst other significant members of the staff, such as Brian Kidd and René Meulensteen came and went, Phelan has outlasted virtually everyone and will almost certainly have learned from each of them, not to mention the gaffer, himself. Even after his dismissal under Moyes, he was more than happy to return not just as a first-team coach, but assistant manager under Ole and show what United had been missing.
As well as having an eye for spotting talent – something that had him tipped to become the clubs first technical/sporting director – Phelan is more than well-versed in old-school, tried and true, footballing philosophies. Furthermore, he also has a real understanding of man-management and how to it’s more important than ever in the modern game.
Simply put, Phelan lives and breathes United and has probably forgotten more about football than you or I will ever know. It’s clear that he is more than willing to adapt and develop his techniques to suit a more contemporary style, and given his long-standing relationship with Ole, not to mention his wealth of experience as number two, he is much more than a slice of the Fergie years.
Many Hands Make Light Work
Lastly, in light of Patrice Evra’s recent appearance on the UTD podcast, where he discussed working through his UEFA A and B licenses, as well the prospect of future management, it became apparent that taking on a coaching role at United is very much a possibility too. Similar to the appointments of Solskjaer and Carrick, not only would bringing Evra into the fold be a fantastic first step in his coaching career, but it’s one I feel would go down extremely well with supporters.
His reputation at United is pretty flawless: he turned a rocky start into a glittering career, making up part of one of the best back-fours we’ve ever had and only left because he was forced too. Moreover, the Suarez scandal only further endeared him to the fans and highlighted the ongoing issue of racism in football, not to mention he has gone on to be a great ambassador for the club.
Better still, he’d be more than just a crowd-pleaser. Like Carrick, Evra hasn’t been out of the game long and although his latter playing days may not have been as fruitful, he still has first-hand knowledge of the modern game, backed up by years of experience at the top level of the previous generation.
The notion of adding yet another wise head, who straddles the old and the new, into the mix is an exciting one, especially given he is yet another that knows United inside and out. More importantly, when you start to add all of these pieces together and look at the bigger picture, what is being built is a team of winners who have genuine expertise when it comes to being part of a successful team, whether it’s as a player or as a coach.
Whatever your opinion on Ole as a manager, he was the definitive super-sub in every sense of the word. The stories of him studying the game, taking notes and learning from Fergie whilst sat on the bench, shows that he has always looked to broaden his field of knowledge and improve his own footballing acumen – I believe his time as a manager, so far, has been no different.
Instead of conforming to the traditional, singular-minded approach, I think it could be a really progressive step to introduce a more collaborative coaching and management set up. This doesn’t stop with the immediate quartet/the addition of Evra either: I think further integrating the likes of Mark Dempsey and, crucially, Nicky Butt, given his instrumental role in the club’s development, would only serve to strengthen the team both on and off the pitch.
I’m not saying United have to pioneer a brand new way of running a club, but we set a precedent once before by ‘playing the kids’, so who says we couldn’t be innovators once again?
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