Hands-off Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and raw assistants leave coaching blind spot at Manchester United

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Michael Carrick, Mike Phelan and Kieran McKenna have been part of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's team since 2018. - GETTY IMAGES
Michael Carrick, Mike Phelan and Kieran McKenna have been part of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's team since 2018. - GETTY IMAGES

It is hard to imagine Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp or Thomas Tuchel always deferring to one of their coaching staff when it comes to the key pre-match talk to the players the night before games.

It happens, occasionally, at Liverpool with Klopp’s assistant Pep Lijnders but it happens all the time at Manchester United where the task of laying out the main tactical briefing alternates between Kieran McKenna and Michael Carrick.

Both are in their first jobs at this level as is Lijnders although the vital difference is that he is working under Klopp’s wing. He is his manager’s voice.

Klopp is hands-on and sets out the plan. It is him who is heard and he is front of house. At Manchester City and Chelsea Guardiola and Tuchel always take the lead, they absolutely micro-manage even if they do also consult with their coaching staff, and see it as an important part of their role. They would not have it any other way.

Meanwhile at United, McKenna, just 35, and a career coach after his playing career at Tottenham Hotspur was cut short by injury aged 22, also devises and conducts the coaching sessions along with Carrick at the Carrington training ground as Solskjaer and his other assistant, Mike Phelan, again observe from the side-lines.

United’s set-piece coach? That would be 29-year-old Eric Ramsay who is a friend of McKenna’s as they studied together at Loughborough University. Ramsay arrived from Chelsea in the summer where he had worked with their Under-23s. But not as their coach. Ramsay was the assistant to Andy Myers. He has never before been at this level.

McKenna, Carrick and Ramsay. There is a theme of huge inexperience that runs through United’s coaching staff and that, more and more, is being exposed as the team struggles and highlights even further the shortcomings of Solskjaer as a manager.

It naturally irritates the United staff that their work is criticised and that they face the accusation of overseeing one of the most under-coached and poorly-drilled sides in the Premier League and one that depends on individual moments of brilliance to get by. But the fact is some of their rivals do regard United as the worst coached team; one that appears under-prepared, tactically poor and unable to adapt in-game.

No-one could claim, right now, that any aspect of United’s team is fully functioning beyond goalkeeper David De Gea and McKenna’s coaching sessions have been likened, by some sources, as more suited to academy football than first-teamers. There has never been great faith in him and players can quickly see through this kind of inexperience and lack of authority. Who brings the edge?

McKenna has some glowing endorsements as a coach, not least from United’s former academy director Nicky Butt, and was poached five years ago and promoted to work with the first-team by Jose Mourinho. So he is clearly talented.

Kieran McKenna celebrates alongside Michael Carrick and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer last season. - GETTY IMAGES
Kieran McKenna celebrates alongside Michael Carrick and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer last season. - GETTY IMAGES

Carrick’s playing career was outstanding and the 40-year-old has been on the coaching staff since retiring just three years ago. Ramsay was the youngest Briton to gain the top coaching badge, the Uefa Pro-Licence, at the age of 27 and may be another stellar talent. But he is untried at this level as is Darren Fletcher who was promoted to technical director having also formerly been a first-team coach.

And that is the problem and it means that problem must be placed at Solskjaer’s door. It is not the fault of the other coaches and they have been left exposed. The buck must stop with Solskjaer while Phelan, vastly experienced and no2 to Sir Alex Ferguson for the final years of his reign, seems to have become more and more of a peripheral figure.

When Phelan first returned to United he was certainly far more involved in the decision-making process, especially in the months when Solskjaer was still just a caretaker. But that appears less the case now even if the 59-year-old has, like the manager, recently signed a new three-year contract. Carrick and McKenna were also set to sign new deals.

Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Assistant manager Mike Phelan of Manchester United walk out for the second half during the UEFA Champions League group F match between Manchester United and Atalanta at Old Trafford on October 20, 2021 in Manchester, England. - GETTY IMAGES
Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Assistant manager Mike Phelan of Manchester United walk out for the second half during the UEFA Champions League group F match between Manchester United and Atalanta at Old Trafford on October 20, 2021 in Manchester, England. - GETTY IMAGES

So what does Solskjaer see himself as? Given he is 48, given he has been a manager with Molde and Cardiff City it is strange that he appears to regard himself as beyond coaching United. It is said the Norwegian’s vision for his role is as more of a ‘general manager’ with a view on all aspects of the football department when, actually, what he needs to do is get out on the grass and show whether he is capable enough of coaching a team.

Clearly he is heavily influenced by Sir Alex Ferguson’s approach. But that is misreading Ferguson’s work. Yes, he tended to take more of a back seat when it came to coaching but that was not always the case throughout his career. It only came when he had already proven himself and had that authority and when – crucially – he employed experienced coaches such as Archie Knox, then Brian Kidd, who had already managed, Steve McClaren, who had worked as an assistant and won promotion with Derby County, Jimmy Ryan, Carlos Quieroz and Rene Meulensteen and Phelan. But they all knew their roles. Ferguson also briefly turned to Walter Smith in 2004 as he wanted a seasoned coach alongside him. “Regeneration was an everyday duty,” Ferguson wrote in his autobiography but Solskjaer has not listened to that. He has not got the balance right. Nowhere near. Complacency has replaced it. He has not proven himself as a coach before earning the right to delegate in the way that Ferguson did and, in any case, he does not possess the same skill-set or personality as the man he so reveres.

“Ole was a sweet-natured boy who was never looking to be confrontational with me. There was no risk to my office door from Ole wanting to smash it down to demand a place in the first XI. He knew he was content with his role,” Ferguson also wrote of his former striker. It kind of sums up Solskjaer’s cosy regime at United which works for Solskjaer but does not work on the pitch.

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