Solskjær’s approach shows players are not sets of data, but humans

Jonathan Wilson on 11 January 2019

Nobody realistically doubts that Manchester United’s game against Tottenham on Sunday represents a new level of challenge for Ole Gunnar Solskjær but equally it would take a particularly cussed soul – or Nemanja Matic – not to acknowledge the change of mood he has already enacted.

Perhaps his role is simply to be a palate-cleanser but Solskjær has United playing with a sense of enjoyment that arguably has not been there since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.

Should players be so influenced by the nature of the management? There have been plenty in the weeks since José Mourinho’s departure who have blamed the squad, suggesting they owed it to the club, the fans and their contracts to give their all, no matter how much they disliked the bloke who was constantly calling them out in interviews and shouting at them to hold cautious positions. But that, perhaps, is to misunderstand the nature of endeavour: it’s all very well to want to will yourself to try harder but where does that will come from? Can it be willed into existence?

At some point, a player’s psyche is subject to factors beyond his control – and part of a manager’s job is to be one of those factors, shaping or guiding a player’s responses, whether by making him feel happy or angry or as though he has a point to prove or has a duty to defend his club’s colours or whatever. In fact, for a long time, certainly in the British conception of the role, harnessing the collective psyche of the squad was a manager’s main function. Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Don Revie and Brian Clough all had other virtues but their main strength, in differing ways, was man-management.

Paradoxically, as more and more clubs have begun to use sports psychologists, man-management has come to seem less and less significant for the manager himself. Those who prioritised man-management – Martin O’Neill, Harry Redknapp, Kevin Keegan – tend now to be regarded as embarrassingly old-fashioned.

Mourinho is a more complex case. Speak to those who played for him at Porto and the impression is almost of a cult, such was the devotion he inspired. Yet recently, he has come to seem outmoded both tactically and in his handling of players – a useful reminder, perhaps, that psychology and tactics are not readily disentangled.

The Shankly model remains powerful enough that there endure vestiges of a desire for a manager-messiah but as the role is redefined as head coach, so the manager inevitably becomes more technocratic – and that is symptomatic of a much wider trend.

In an essay in The Point, Justin EH Smith, author of Irrationality, discusses the baleful effects of the modern urge to quantify everything. Algorithms and systems, he notes, make life safer and more efficient but there is a cost. Once somebody becomes a set of data, they become a commodity. “This financialisation is complete…” he says, “when the algorithms make the leap from machines originally meant only to assist human subjects, into the way these human subjects constitute themselves and think about themselves, their tastes and values, and their relations with others.”

This is as true of footballers as it is of anybody; in a sense, football pre-empted the wider shift: “The tech companies’ transformation of individuals into data sets,” Smith says, “has effectively moneyballed the entirety of human social reality.” That is a trend that extends beyond managers, to scouts, agents, journalists and fans, many of whose interactions with football will have been conditioned by Football Manager or Fifa, in which players are literally bundles of statistics.

This is not a dismissal of data in football. Clearly it is of use, in highlighting trends or anomalies, confirming or challenging what we think we have seen, alerting clubs to the likely strengths and weakness of potential signings. But Smith does highlight a limitation and perhaps a danger.

An alarming number of the blithe purveyors of xG stats and the like seem to regard their algorithmic reality as somehow more real than the actual flesh and blood game on the pitch with its players who have minds and personalities and emotions that fail frustratingly often to conform to the equation.

English football – and as Raphael Honigstein’s book Das Reboot makes clear, this was the case in Germany too – for a long time prioritised motivation at the expense of everything else. Perhaps modern football, though, has gone too far in the other direction. There has been a suspicion that, on the rare times Manchester City find themselves under pressure, they can lack leadership, in part because of the way their players are denied agency by an approach that demands players be subordinate to the tactical genius of their manager.

And there is, of course, an irony. As Mourinho unravelled towards the end at Old Trafford, one of his more bizarre rants was against the use of stats to prove footballing points.

That this came just two months after he had read from a sheet of stats to explain his use of Marcus Rashford means it can be probably disregarded as self-serving, obfuscatory hypocrisy – and yet equally his successor has perhaps proved his point.

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For Mourinho, mental preparation was always a key aspect of tactical preparation and just because he has struggled recently to do that effectively does not invalidate the principle. Solskjær has made strides by dispelling much of the negativity around Old Trafford; Sunday should give some indication of whether there is tactical substance to go along with that.

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