What is Manchester United under Solskjær? What really is philosophy in football and does Solskjær have one?

Image 1: Ole captured in pre-season training.

Ole Gunnar Solskjær has been in charge of Manchester United as permanent manager for 2 years and a couple of months. Yet, there are so many fans and journalists, alike, that still argue with each other on his “style of play” or “philosophy”? In this article, we will look into that and we will also explore how important are these terms ? Does it really matter in the grand scheme of things? Does their absence or presence guarantee trophies or a successful managerial career?

This article will be dense and will contain a lot of historical facts, about managers and teams that came and past, to explain the terms and the for and against arguments of these terms. If you manage to get to the end of this article, I thank you for your patience and effort.

Since Ole Gunnar Solskjær took the managerial job, the question that loomed large to this day is how does Solskjær want Manchester United to play. To answer this simple question, you have to know who Solskjær is, who influenced him, what philosophies has he adopted in the way he goes about managing and from where!

Solskjær spent 15 years at Manchester United as a player, a first team coach, and a reserve’s team manager. Therefore, it is safe to say that Solskjær is influenced by the club that he spent nearly a third of his life at…Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson brought him up and influenced him to the very core.

Many managers have been heavily influenced by the club of their upbringing and the manager they served under the most. Pep Guardiola, Johan Cruyff, Jürgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel, Antonio Conte, Diego Simeone, and Mauricio Pochettino all are influenced by managers they worked under or played for or ideas that were prominent at the time of learning. They are all their own men but they all follow previous templates and ideas. Some of them have just taken these ideas a bit further and tweaked a little. It is the same for Ole Gunnar Solskjær.

Let’s take, for example, Pep Guardiola. For all his genius, many of his principles and ideas are taken from what has been taught to him at Barcelona under Johan Cruyff. Of course, Guardiola modified and added a bit on Cruyff’s ideas of Total football and manipulation of space. But where did Cruyff get his ideas? Cruyff spent majority of his playing career under Rinus Michaels, one of the most influential Ajax and Barcelona managers in the 60s and 70s.

The term “Total Football” — which possession based football is a product of — originated with Michaels. Now, it is a trade mark of Ajax and Barcelona. Michaels also believed in youth. He and Cruyff revolutionized the Ajax’s De Toekomst and Barcelona’s La Masia academies to become what they are now in our modern times. Hence, When you study Michaels and Cruyff, you’ll see Guardiola in them and vice versa. Guardiola’s philosophy is the modern manifestation of their philosophies. Although, Guardiola isn’t really a believer in youth that much — if you analyzed his approach post-Barcelona.

Similarly, Jürgen Klopp, his philosophies are adopted from the two Germans who introduced systematic pressing (aka. Gegenpressing football), Jürgen Klinsmann & Ralf Rangnick, to German football in the early & late 90s. Both of them have their predecessors whom they have adopted ideas from.

It is the same with Ole Gunnar Solskjær. He has been entrenched in the school of Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United football club. It is only natural his tendencies are there.

“I’ve had him for 15 years. So obviously he’s influenced me more.”

“Everything I’ve learned, I owe it to him [Sir Alex Ferguson]. If I hadn’t learn from him, I wouldn’t have become a coach.” Solskjær said

So, if Ole Gunnar Solskjær is influenced by Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson, he must play similar if not the same football style. Yes, and no. How? This is where we need to differentiate between “philosophy” and “style of play”.

The word itself just entered the football literature after Louis Van Gaal mentioned it in a press conference, when he was Manchester United manager.

“My philosophy binds players with my training and in my career I have had a lot of players who are fascinated by that philosophy,” he said.

When journalists pressed LVG on whether his philosophy encapsulated a “style of play” or a particular “mentality”, LVG quickly responded by saying:

“It’s not only a mode of play, it’s the way we are treating players, the way we are building up training sessions, the way we have to do our rehabilitation, the process, the steps that you have to make, it’s a lot of things… But one of the most important things is I’m seeing the players not only as football players but as human beings.”

In reality, the term “Philosophy” should be divided into two things. One, “Beliefs and ideals”, and two, “Philosophy of style”. Philosophy of beliefs and ideals, in a club or a managerial sense, is the principles and values by which someone or some entity (football Club) operates. In a business sense, it is the business model of the company.

For example, a company has a philosophy in that it offers the lowest prices of a specific line of product(s). That’s their motto. Everything in that company from top to bottom is operating to provide the cheapest products. Think of the dollar store as an example. Apple, as another example, their motto is “think different”. Everything that Apple tries to do with their products has this slogan inherently integrated through every fabric of the company. So basically, the philosophy of beliefs is an abstract idea that guides the club or the manager’s actions.

“Philosophy, for a football club, is something intrinsic that the history of the club was built on and the club was known for throughout its existence. It’s what they believe in. It’s their ‘why’ we do it, the way we do.”

The missing part in LVG’s argument is a club can also have a philosophy, or “a way of doing things or operating” just like the manager. Gary Neville argued that if the philosophy of the manager and that of the club do not match, a sense of confusion and unfamiliarity, sometimes even friction, happens between manager, players, and club. Many share that belief and sentiment.

In all fairness to Neville and those who side with him, this is exactly the symptoms that Manchester United football club were showing in the period before Solskjær.

Gary Neville: “The club had lost its way and it’s identity. I don’t recognize Manchester United anymore.”

He later added the following: “A club should not breach its philosophy for an individual.” referring the outgoing manager, Jose Mourinho.

It’s a seductive concept to the fandom. A manager hired with a philosophy that goes against the fundamental nature, ideals and beliefs of the club will be rejected by the club, involuntarily. Not maliciously, but instinctively. Like a parasite in your body that your immunity system fought off.

I believe that this is only half of the equation. A club’s philosophy can be changed, if all parties are in agreement — including the fans. Every facet of the club has to be pulling into the same direction for a given project to work. Another way to change a club’s philosophy is if the club was bought by Abu Dhabi United Group. A club’s philosophy can be changed by a manager but this is another discussion for a later time.

If you ask any of the Manchester born fans who witnessed the great Sir Matt Busby or Sir Alex Ferguson. They would tell you:

“Our club’s philosophy is to trust in youth while playing exciting, fast, attacking football with wingers and a robust midfield. Never say die attitude.”

For Manchester United, it was how they have always defied the odds with the young Busby babes and Fergie’s fledglings. Trusting youngsters and home grown talent was, is and, probably, will always be a pillar in the Manchester United ethos.

“It’s every manager’s dream, I suppose, to build a team by coaching young players of 15 to 17. That’s why I started a youth scheme. You can get loyalty from them and continuity too. If they are good enough, they are old enough.” Sir Matt Busby

The second pillar of that philosophy was attacking football. Funnily enough though, Attacking, here, doesn’t mean the style of football but it refers to United being leaders, front runners, or the first to dare. The club pride itself in being leaders in English football. The only English club to win the famous Treble. The first English club to win the European Cup — now named Champions League.

I know some are properly saying now: “wait a second, Are you trying to say that United didn’t always play attacking football?”

No. What I am saying is despite the fact that the United teams have always based their way of playing on attacking football, they have always adapted. It was not a one way street.

A lie told a thousand times becomes truth to the recipient. Nevertheless, it is still a lie. We can’t account for how Sir Matt adapted in the face of different opponents. Sir Alex, on the other hand, has adapted a lot through out his time at United. At times, he played defensive football. We will discuss this further in the style of play section.

Then, United always used “wingers and a robust midfield”. These are not really traits of a philosophy but has more to do with principles of play.

Lastly, the never say die attitude. This is not a proprietary United trait only but two of the most defining moments in Manchester United’s history came in the dying moments of European Cup finals were United persevered and fought till the end to get the win, eventually. That phrase became a requirement and synonym of a Manchester United player ever since. It is so engrained in the club’s philosophy that — to this day — all youth prospects at United mention that phrase when they are asked about what a player needs to have to be a Manchester United player.

This is fundamentally the philosophy of beliefs and ideals of Ole Gunnar Solskjær. A) trust in the youth of United, B) play attacking football but adapt when necessary, and C) A never say die attitude — give it your all for the shirt.

If you trace everything Solskjær has done at United since taking charge, you’ll notice that these three principles are at the core of what he is trying to achieve. Even if some don’t believe he is playing attacking football YET— Underlined.

Next, we’ll talk about “Philosophy of play” or “style of play”. Yes, “Style of play” falls under the all encompassing philosophy of a club or philosophy of a manager. So going forward, we will refer to style of play as philosophy of play. Now take a break, and go refill your cup of coffee!

So far, we said Solskjær plays “attacking football and adapts” but what is that? When we talked about Guardiola and Klopp, we mentioned a style (i.e. Possession, Gegenpressing, etc..) but not when we talked about Ole. We just said “attacking football”. We’ll get to that. But, let’s define “Philosophy of play” first and see where it came from.

Philosophy of play, as pretty much the beliefs and ideals — usually — come from the style that the manager has been brought up in. The style he used to play as a player. However, these styles or philosophies themselves originated from an age long debate in the world of football since the 50s & 60s, maybe earlier, about the ideal approach of a team play style.

That debate gave rise to two sides, one that believes the team style should be systematic and efficient while the other advocates for individualism, flare, and tricks — after all the game is about entertainment. In addition, there was another section that regarded winning is all that matters, their motto was the end justifies the means. While, the first two sides argued over Beauty (jogo bonito, futebol d’arte) vs. Systems (futebol de resultados). The goal was always the best possible football. The last group, though, were labelled Anti-football. It was ugly and violent.

Focusing on the first two, think of beauty vs efficiency as a scale where one end is the ultimate individualistic team and the other is the ultimate systematic team. Both have been successful throughout history. Brazil’s teams in the 50s and early 60s were all about the flare and individuals.

“the difference between English football and Brazilian is the English think of football is an athletic game while Brazilians think of it as a game. The Brazilians want the player faster than the ball while the opposite is true for the English. The English player thinks before playing the ball, the Brazilian improvises.” A Gazeta piece in 1949.

Feola, Brazil’s manager in 1958, relied on the individualistic ability of Garrincha to attack. He was usually marked by 2–3 individuals. The same went for Pelé but Garrincha was the dribbler of the team. “Tactics and styles are not valid to these players” said Feola. They were just mesmerizing.

Now, this doesn’t mean that these teams didn’t have a style or tactics. They did but the freedom the players had — to do exactly what they are good at — was great and much more than any modern system would allow. These teams would prepare and balance the team with personnel equipped to carry out the task needed. However, it was never systematic. The players solved the issues that faced them on the pitch by improvising not by some sort of rehearsed routine.

“Remember the first pass goes to Garrincha.” Pele to Didi — a midfielder in the Brazilian national team.

“What this team needs is great players. Players who are intelligent. Let’s go with that & see where it takes us.” Zagallo said before World Cup 1970, Brazil won it.

On the other side of the scale, a complete systematic approach. One of the managers who embodies this, the most, is Louis Van Gaal.

“Football is a team sport and members of the team are dependent on each other to carry out their simple basic tasks. If one player doesn’t the whole team suffers. This can only be achieved with discipline on and off the pitch.” Van Gaal said.

Despite his great success with Ajax in the early 90s and Barcelona late 90s and early 00s. Van Gaal’s football was seen to be too mechanic, too disciplined and rigid. His version of Total football was heavily criticized as it didn’t allow many avenues for individual creativity. It was different than that of Michels and Cruyff.

As tactics and styles evolved throughout, the 60s, 70s, & 80s, more and more managers tried to be in the middle of the scale. It was a balancing act between systems and individuals. Of course, it depended on how a given manager saw the game and what their beliefs and ideals were. The manager’s view determined whether the team sided more with individual flare and creativity or a systematic approach with a sprinkle of flare.

Two teams were touted to have found the perfect balancing act; Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan of the late 80s and Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona of 2009–12. A disciplined system that didn’t take away from the players individual brilliance. Both managers, of course, needed incredibly talented, technically and mentally, players to be able to achieve this. Some called it, Football Perfection.

In case, you are currently wondering, Manchester United have historically tilted towards player’s individualistic flare. As SAF and Solskjær have always said publicly: “I want the players to express themselves.”

This doesn’t mean they didn’t have systems and frameworks for players. It doesn’t mean there was no tactics applied for different games and different times. It just means, it was not too routinic and too systematic.

Like, for example, Guardiola’s Man City. Guardiola’s team rely on something called Juego de Posición or Positional play — where a player has to occupy certain positions relative to the other players and interchanges. Manchester United don’t apply the same principle. They are more loose.

Generally, in today’s football, there’s no entire reliance on individuals nor the excessive complexity of an entirely automated and systemic approach. If there is, they are seen as extreme examples.

“In all team sports, the secret is to overload one side of the pitch so that the opponent must tilt its own defense to cope. You overload on one side and draw them in so that they leave the other side weak. And when we’ve done all that, we attack and score from the other side. That’s why you have to pass the ball, but only if you’re doing it with a clear intention. It’s only to overload the opponent, to draw them in and then to hit them with the sucker punch. That’s what our game needs to be. Nothing to do with tiki-taka.” said Guardiola

“For me, it is use of space I understand football as a “time-space”. If Messi is in a space that nobody occupies, he has time to think. Then it becomes very dangerous. If he doesn’t have enough space or time, he needs to challenge. He can do it, against three, even four opponents, but it becomes more complicated. So I understand football as a “space-time” relationship. There are people who have counterattack, fast attack, whatever you want. You put the vocabulary as you like it. I prefer to say: look at the space there, or the space is there, space is here. Be aware of the time. Do not rush. Do not come and look for the ball. Take the space, and we will take the ball to you”. said Xavi Hernandez

Image 2: Xavi Hernandez, ex-player at Barcelona.

As you can see from Guardiola and Xavi’s words here, Guardiola’s thinking is all about systems and overloads that can create space for players through patient building, passing, occupying the right positions. This in turn, creates time and space for players to think and make decisions then score goals. This is what we call possession based football. It favors more the system side of the debate that was previously discussed.

This is the concept that is currently dominating the understanding of modern football and tactics. While this already existed in a defensive sense since the 50s with the Italians' catenaccio — Modern day “Park the bus”, a low block with counter attack developed by Italians to counter teams that had too much attacking flare and individual quality. The best sides, now, systematically create space to attack while denying space to their opponents. Guardiola’s post-Cruyffian revolution has really brought to light this idea in an attacking sense and called it Positional play.

What about the other side of the debate, you are probably wondering? Are they becoming less popular and getting pushed out of football? No. They are still very much in play.

“You can argue about formations, tactics and systems forever, but to me football is fundamentally about the players. Whether it is 4–4–2, 4–2–3–1, 4–3–3, the numbers game is not the beautiful game in my opinion. It’s 10% about the formation and 90% about the players. If you have the best ones and they do their jobs, then they can pretty much play any way you want them to.” said Harry Redknapp.

When Thierry Henry was sacked from the Monaco job after 3 months. Wenger spoke about the difficulties of implementing a philosophy and defended his ex-player.

“We depend a lot on the quality of the players, the quality of the club and the quality of the confidence we get.” Wenger said.

Image 3: Wenger coming to defend Henry after being sacked.

Arsène Wenger, one of football’s great innovators, has always been an advocate of encouraging players to think for themselves rather than enforcing systematic approaches. It’s independent learning on the player’s part and enhances sharp and quick thinking.

A modern fan would say: Wenger advocated for reliance on “individual brilliance”, which is not entirely true or fair. There are many examples of teams that relied on letting their players express their talents by giving them freedom of improvisation.

For example, Luis Enrique’s Treble winning Barcelona team in 14/15. Enrique’s side were a lot less complex and systematic tactically than Guardiola’s Barcelona in 2009. But there’s not an analyst out there that would tell you that they were less effective than Guardiola’s Barcelona team. There’s serious doubt that had Enrique imposed a more comprehensive positional play approach, it wouldn’t have been as successful. The simple idea of letting the best front three (Messi, Suarez, Neymar) in the world run wild and get on with it, was quite destructive, effective, and unpredictable.

Another two examples are Zinedine Zidane’s 3-peat UCL winners Real Madrid and Didier Deschamps’ 2018 WC winning France. Both of whom, let their talented players do their thing more than they actually implemented a complex tactical system. There are still doubts among many tactical analysts whether Deschamps and Zidane are quite tactical themselves or just relied on the absurd quality at their disposal, which is not a bad thing. It is actually quite smart sometimes to let that amount of talent at your disposal run wild. They both had basic frameworks and ideas and the rest was up to their players to solve.

As you can see, Football is a battle of ideas, and one shouldn’t discredit the view that players are intelligent enough to solve their own problems on the pitch. Many encourage it, and many others oppose it but one thing is for sure, it is very much an effective way to reach the goal.

Until now, we have mentioned 2 types of football philosophies, Total football or possession based and Gegenpressing. There are another two prominent types; Direct Football and Counter Attack football. Both these types were and are associated with all the Manchester United teams.

Where many of the teams discussed in this article had a set in stone style they pursued, Manchester United didn’t. They adapted with the times and opponents. Manchester United had times where they played possession based football and other times direct based football, and other times where they were purely a counter attacking team that relied on containing then attacking. Many fans argue that the 07/08 Manchester United was the greatest team under SAF despite not achieving the same height of the Treble winning team. Yet, that team’s most dominant trait was its counter attack.

However, if there was a term to use on how Manchester United approached football, generally, it would be direct football. Not direct as in “long-ball football” of the old English game — as the English would say lump the ball forward to a big physical number 9. Direct, here, means the manner of attacking and taking the game to their opponents. Teams that played possession based are usually patient with the ball. United always wanted to attack as quickly & vertically as possible. They always relied on rapid players (usually wingers) with a multi-functional striker to kill their opponents as soon as they lose the ball.

In the early 90s, Cantona (number 10), Kanchelskis (non traditional 9), Giggs, and Sharp (wingers) in the 442/4231 back were the rapid front 4. SAF relied on their speed and quality to completely annihilate their opponents on the transition. Whether they won the ball back high, mid or low, the aim was to attack quickly by getting the ball to either Cantona or one of the wingers (Giggs or Sharp).

The transitions were the name of the game for United and with the quality they had, the were frightening. The same for the 98/99 team. They were a bit more technically gifted and added more passes and crosses to their game, with Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke being the poachers. Still, the counter attacking component and their directness never left them. Think of Beckham’s crosses and Giggs’ directness (dribbles) towards oppositions as soon as they received the ball.

5 years later, SAF hired Carlos Queiroz to help him dominate on the European stage. A reconstruction of the team and tactics happened. United updated their system from the old 442 that looked like 4231 in play to the 442 that was a 433 in play. The 433 was brought by Jose Mourinho to the English game through which he dominated the PL from 2004 to 2006. However, the underlying style and principles, “the United Way” if you will, never changed.

Actually, those traits were amplified with the deadly trio of Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez and a solid foundation behind them. The 07/08 Manchester United was the ultimate counter attacking team — which seems to be a negative thing now under Solskjær, oddly.

“We would always setup defensively to intercept the ball and then we go forward straight away. Break the lines. We had Rooney running forward, Ronaldo, Park, Nani. The aim was to break the lines as quick as we could. There was always space there to hit.” Rene Meulensteen said.

“Listen Rene, when I close my eyes and I want to imagine Manchester United at its best, I want to see the following principles of play from an attacking sense: .” SAF said to Rene Meulensteen after being hired as a first team coach.

Image 4: Rene Meulensteen and SAF discussing tactics

The 4 principles that SAF described to Rene there are the hallmarks of Manchester United’s philosophy of play. They are also a major requirement in the definition of counter attacking football and direct football.

“I’d been watching. I had a clear idea of what a United team should look like. I have been part of a United team and I wanted to go back to our traditions of attacking. Quick, attacking football with pace, power, and ­personalities out there. And that is what we are doing. I can see fruits of what we’re doing. The seeds we’re laying are starting to pop up” Solskjær said.

“For me, it’s quick, attacking, flowing football with the right intent. And when we win it [the ball], there’s no use of keeping it or putting it backwards, or back to the goalkeeper, if the chances are there to play through them.” Solskjær after winning at the Etihad 2–1 in December 2019.

Image 5: Solskjær’s PC after United win City at Etihad.

From Solskjær’s words here, you can see what Solskjær’s philosophy of play is and where does it come from. In addition, you can probably tell by now which football school of thought (side of the debate) Ole Gunnar Solskjær sits on. He likes individualism, flare and unpredictability, just like SAF and Manchester United.

While top teams in Europe use positional play and maintaining possession to create space and exploit it. Manchester United and Solskjær make their opponents work for them by drawing opponents onto them thus giving them space or creating it for United. This is why United play best when they are pressed. Here’s what Solskjær said when asked about how his team creates space:

“There are many ways of creating. Sometimes I do have discussions — especially with my dad, he likes to say, ‘Well why don’t you draw them onto you? Let them come and press?’

“So in some games you soak up pressure and give away the possession of the ball — sometimes that creates that space. But for us, the players want the ball all the time. So the ball has to do the work: you have to move it quickly, have to be better at circulating it and making decisions on when to keep it and when to risk it.” Solskjær said to Carl Anka from The Athletic.

Image 6: Solskjær’s PC after United 3–1 over Newcastle.

As previously mentioned, teams like Barcelona and Ajax under Guardiola and Cruyff manipulated space in a systematic way to get the best out of players. While at Manchester United with Solskjær, they use the players to create the space or manipulate the opponents by drawing them in to create the space. They are quite different in their approach but the end goal is the same — space space space. Guardiola is centered on systems while Solskjær’s approach is centered around the players and their instincts and improvisation.

Now stop here and think of some of the goals Manchester United have scored in 19/20 and 20/21 under Solskjær. The 3rd goal vs Sheff United away in 20/21 was a perfect example of direct play. The second goal vs Leicester away in Dec 2020 or the 3rd goal vs Watford in 2020 by Mason. These were all direct play goals that included The masterclass in counter attacking football vs Manchester City at the Etihad in 2019. The first two goals vs Liverpool in the FA Cup in 2021.

Moving on, some of you are probably thinking, so Solskjær relies on individual brilliance and my answer to you would be – No. Both approaches systematic or not rely on the individual ability of players to some capacity. In addition, by thinking that, you underestimate the time and effort it takes to coach players to do things at 100 miles per hour — this is what counter-attacking and direct football requires. Its a spilt second thinking football.

“There are incredible managers, they don’t have these players, they don’t have these big clubs. I’m a good manager but not the best. Give me a team that is not like Manchester City and doesn’t have these players, I am not going to win,” Guardiola said.

Image 7: Pep Guardiola’s PC on Feb 7, 2021.

The major difference between both approaches is one encourages self learning on the pitch when problems arise while the other provides a previously rehearsed calligraphic dance for the players to fall back on when they get stuck. They both require specific tactics and details for each game and each opponent. What we explained is simply the philosophy and the approaches to the game — while also proving that both have been successful.

There’s no point in choosing one side over the other or saying that Manchester United and Solskjær’s philosophy is invalid. Both sides of the debate have their pros and cons and had their success. It’s favorable to have a pre-planned strategy in possession that can help teams systemically break down opponents. It is also favorable to allow individuals the freedom to make their choices, innovate and let their instincts take control. Both point of views lead to similar results, the more quality players you have at your disposal. Some would argue that player freedom leads to more creativity and unpredictability, which makes the game more exciting. However, there are those who prefer knowing how things are going to go down and like the feel of that systematic guarantee.

As I said previously, one shouldn’t discredit the view that players are intelligent enough to solve their own problems on the pitch. There’s no winner here. It’s a preference of ideas that have been tested and proved.

Finally, Manchester United do have a philosophy and a way of thinking set in stone since the 1950s and they have had success with it under Sir Alex and Sir Matt. Solskjær merely adopted the philosophy of the figures and club that brought him up. He has had success with that way of thinking at Molde in Norway. Of course, we are not saying Solskjær is a carbon copy. He is his own manager and coach. He has his own details and tactics. It is merely the philosophy and principles that are identical.

One thing is for sure, Manchester United is looking more and more like Manchester United that many grew up on. The philosophies of both manager and club are aligned. The club looks like it is moving in an upward trajectory.

Will that be enough to guarantee success for Manchester United and Solskjær? No one really knows. What we know for sure is that the club seems to be progressing forward. And the way they are going about bringing glory back to Old Trafford has been successful for that club throughout its great history. Who’s to say it can’t work again?

Thank you for reading and hope you enjoyed it.

Abdel Rahman

Just a guy interested in football.