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Solksjær’s belatedness

Early into the season, and Solksjær’s under pressure again. In this same month last season, he was under pressure for getting thrashed 6-1 at home by what was a mediocre Tottenham side. This time, the Red Devils lost 5-0 at home to Liverpool… to Liverpool! The exception is that this season, Solksjær’s transitory phase is meant to be over. By now, many believe that Solksjær should have finally asserted his unique football identity. By now, Solksjaer’s footballing mind, through all his powers, should irradiate a football style that would have made it seem as though football had never been properly played before. The long tradition of Manchester United should have reached a new summit of glory.

Solksjær seems to have all the components needed to accomplish this masterpiece: De Gea, Slabhead, and the finely-aged French fromage that is Varane, as well as the fit-and-healthy Luke Shaw and monster-tackler Wan Bissaka out on the flanks, establish the perfect hardcover for Solksjær’s project, able to stop any thwarting attacks at ease.  The combination of Bruno Fernandes’ tenacity with Pogba’s sublime curlers surely give Solksjær’s scripture the needed rigour and flair. The fine quill, Cristiano Ronaldo, should exquisitely sign off each tale, capturing Manchester United’s great sense of vigour and excitement. 

Tradition and influence may be Solksjaer’s stumbling block. The weighty presence of Sir Alex Ferguson from the stands , as well as the pride of the “Manchester United DNA” that is so palpably felt by all Manchester United supporters, as well as every football fan, clouds over Solksjaer. 

Solksjaer has, time and time again, consciously alluded to the United tradition. After the Atalanta game just a week ago, in which they won 3-2 after going 2-0 down, he triumphantly stated: “Comebacks are in our DNA”. He also managed to slip in “never give in” to his interview. On the other hand, Solksjaer has also struggled with this luring presence of history. After Sir Alex Ferguson was caught criticising Solksjaer’s decision to leave Ronaldo on the bench against Everton, Solksjaer simply said that he was “relaxed about it”. 

The problem of history and tradition that faces Solksjær has been pointed out by several journalists and fans, and as we have seen by Solksjær himself. Yet, there has been no proper explanation for the reason why it has been such a hindrance to Solksjær’s progress. 20th century literary criticism on literary influence and tradition may prove to be an apt framework for the discussion of Solksjær’s predicament. 

Although Harold Bloom’s Freudian basis of familial complexes in The Anxiety of Influence may in many respects be outdated and perhaps not so valid, it remains to be an important touchstone in the study of literary history and tradition. Bloom essentially argues that writers feel a sense of ‘belatedness’- or in other words, that they are too late to the party. ‘Strong poets’, he declares, will ‘misread’ precursor poets. Therefore, dead poets’ works are revised by these ‘strong poets’ in such a way there is a ‘swerve’. This ‘swerve’ from tradition means we cannot ever read the precursor poem in the same vein again, and it makes it seem as though the new poet was the first to ever write. Paradoxically, ‘strong poets’ simultaneously conserve and innovate. 

At Manchester United, there is no place worse to feel ‘belatedness’. It may just about be impossible to overcome the club’s vast history. Some may argue that Mourinho and van Gaal do not fit into this framework. Except they do. While Solksjær has largely struggled to innovate and ‘swerve’ from the point of the club’s core tradition, van Gaal, with his rigid football, and Mourinho, with his pragmatic football, completely disregarded the point from which one can ‘swerve’. In other words, it was as though van Gaal and Mourinho played slow and disharmonious music which sounded completely unfitting to its jazz-loving audience. Solksjær’s football at Manchester United has played along to the club’s appetite for jazz, improvisation, and quickness; the problem is that the conductor has not mastered the grace of Manchester United’s jazz-structures, or even properly conjured a melodious chorus which Sir Alex Ferguson had himself so finely composed. 

Solksjaer has also been presented as anything but ‘strong’. In fact, partially due to modern media’s perception of him, he has largely portrayed him as a fairly feeble character. This may yet not necessarily be a problem. 

T.S Eliot, who is probably the better orator on the subject of literary tradition, says, the great poet must escape personality and write with the ‘feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order’. In football terms, Solksjær may indeed benefit from education beyond Old Trafford’s Delphian oracle, Sir Alex Ferguson. Guardiola, who must be the manager which best exemplifies the Bloomian ideal of a ‘strong poet’, was inspired by a range of football managers from around the world, both from the past and present. The regal list of football sides and managers which inspired Guardiola’s football include Tele Santana’s marvellous Brazil 1982 side, Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan Champions League-winning sides, and also, of course, his muse Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona sides. In order to ‘swerve’ and sweep away this overwhelming feeling of belatedness, Solksjær would do well to look sidewards to Klopp’s attacking systems or backwards to Helenio Herrera’s defensive systems. Should he fuse all the knowledge he has and manage with the feeling that all football exists simultaneously, Solksjær may come up with the perfect system to take Manchester United forwards. 

When van Gaal and Mourinho were in the job, they were criticised for abandoning Manchester United’s tradition. Now, Solksjaer is being criticised for the opposite. Perhaps Solksjaer may never find the right gusto which both excitingly retains Manchester United’s extraordinary heritage and also utterly transforms the Manchester United way. 

In every way possible, Solksjær has been an important intermediary manager in the post-Ferguson era. Many may justifiably argue that Solksjær lacks the top-calibre kind of intelligence and tactical awareness that is needed to win trophies. Yet, as Solksjær has largely revived the style of electric football at Old Trafford, despite its flaws, fans, including Gary Neville, should maybe not be so harshly scathed for backing the manager.

The decision that the Manchester United board make next is crucial. Whether they think that Solksjær is simply not good enough, or whether they believe Solksjær can fulfill the destiny of the ‘strong poet’ who ultimately transcends and transfigures Manchester United, the idea of tradition will undoubtedly be the most crucial factor in determining the direction of the club in the next decade and beyond. If the club’s revered tradition is disregarded in the club’s next phase, then any success will be short-lived, and the club’s identity may dissolve altogether.

First posted on Footrace.

Image: Seán Murray/ CC BY-SA 2.0 via WikiMedia Commons

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