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Can Ole Gunnar Solskjaer pick up quickly enough how to think fast?

The Manchester United manager’s summer reading should include a book from a world renowned psychologist. He has most likely something to learn.

Eight years ago, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer started his first team coaching career by leaving the Manchester United reserve team for Molde, the club he played for before joining United.

The same year, the psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman published his famous book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman teaches us about the two major systems the brain uses to make decisions: System 1 is fast, instinctive and emotional. System 2 is logical, deliberate and slow.

If you use your brain well, you use System 1 for the immediate decisions: coffee or tea? Do I put Jesse Lingard or Alexis Sanchez on? You use System 2 for the decisions that have long-term consequences: Do we buy this house? What kind of quality in a player is most important for this team next season?

Since 2011, much about Ole’s career as a manager indicates that he truly is excellent at System 2. He built Molde quickly into a Championship winning team. Albeit in Norway, they had never won the league before. He did it twice, then later came back and turned them into favourites for the 2019 season, before joining United. The combination of developing players, signing good players who fitted in well and applying a very aggressive style of play were perhaps the most notable traits.

The jury is very much out on whether he is good enough when it comes to System 1. Does he really master the art of making the quick, inspired decisions that turn a defeat into a win?

For a manager, System 2 is about the long-term health of the football club. Sir Alex Ferguson excelled at this; he would make decisions that hurt the club short-term, for the long-term benefit. Think summer of 1995 as a prime example, when United let go of Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis, only to be replaced by the inexperienced Class of ’92.

I had the privilege of interviewing Ferguson multiple times in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It struck me more than once how far ahead he was looking, and how he seemed to value future success much more than immediate rewards. And this was before he started winning. Later, Ferguson famously pointed out that you are only in control if you are winning. Which, of course, is right. Yet, he was so determined to win long-term, even before his first successes.

Ferguson also made some impressive, long-term decisions on the fly. None more so than asking; “What about Eric Cantona” when Howard Wilkinson inquired about Denis Irwin in 1992. Thinking slow does not mean mulling over something for months and months.

System 1 is very much about what happens during a game. When to intervene and instruct players, when to make substitutions, how to change the shape of the team at half time. Fergie was not bad at this either, of course. Remember Barcelona or the 5-3 versus Tottenham Hotspur. 

The way Spurs themselves turned around the game versus Ajax in the second semi-final recently, was in many ways a testament to the fast, instinctive changes made by Mauricio Pochettino. A manager who is not necessarily that great at System 2, despite his clear ability to improve players. Spurs have so far lacked the graft and backbone needed to challenge for the league. There is still some truth to the “Lads, it’s Spurs”; the image of a team that is nice to look at, yet not really a threat.

Simplistically speaking, System 1 wins football matches, System 2 lays the foundation for a football club to thrive long term. But if the team is not winning, longterm does not really matter that much. Even Fergie was said to be close to running out of time at some point.

As a Cardiff manager, Solskjaer has later accepted that he tried to change too many things, too fast, and that he made too many changes to the team. The club and the players were not ready for it. He tried to think fast while making decisions that demanded slow processes, and it fell flat.

At United, Solskjaer has shown several times that United can prepare for games in ways to match the other top sides – if we for a moment think of top six as one unit. The Spurs away game was a great example: United prepared well beforehand, had an excellent game plan the players followed, and ran Spurs ragged in the first half. Then came half time. The quick-thinking Pocchetino out-thought Solskjaer at the break, Spurs changed their shape and United never got a grip of the game in the 2nd half. De Gea’s wonders saved United that day. Ole was helpless on the touchline.

In the Miracle of Paris, it was not Solskjaer’s actions during the game that won the game – but the pre-decided game plan of sticking it out until there were 10 minutes remaining, and then go for it by throwing on a couple of attacking players. The plan worked, there was no need for fast, instinctive decisions.

Anyone who has ever coached seriously at any level will know the feeling of how each football match has its own unique character. You may be nervously leading 2-0, or confidently chasing the equaliser knowing you may even snatch all three points at the end – and you as a coach may feel the way the game is turning. Sometimes, your feelings are way off, or something happens that just distorts the rhythm of the game. Or the team runs out of time.

A few times this year it has looked as if Solskjaer has struggled to make a real impact from the touchline. I think he clearly has what is needed on the training pitch and in the long-term strategy of the club. But can he win games by what he does from his cushioned seat? If not, there is a high risk he will not stay in that seat very long.

Judging him by the way the exhausted squad has performed the last few weeks may be harsh. But one cannot help but wonder if the tactical changes during the game really is top notch. United came from behind in a thrilling game versus Southampton much thanks to an injury to Alexis Sanchez that forced Solskjaer’s hand. At other times, like City at home, United were behind yet they made no changes until the score was 0-2, with two substitutions a useless seven minutes from full time. It was as if Ole knew he could not make a difference, whatever he did. In that case, the gulf in quality was wide, so maybe he was right. But it did give the impression that he did not master the art of thinking fast. He needs to address his own faults, not just the team’s, and do it quickly.

If you want to read more about the theory of thinking fast and slow, you can check out this article on Medium.com.

Written by Ole Petter Pedersen

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