Mike Phelan: The Mastermind Behind Solskjaer’s Success At Manchester United

Reuters/Lee Smith

Manchester United have enjoyed unprecedented amounts of success under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. His hard work has managed to transform a team that was oft dull and lethargic under Jose Mourinho to one that has begun to inspire and evoke true passion from the supporters.

Numerous factors have gone into this brilliant change, with Jose Mourinho’s defensive style of football being chucked aside in exchange for a style that is more in sync with the club’s natural DNA being a massive one.

However, Solskjaer hasn’t achieved all of this on his own. While the players have a massive chunk of the credit, perhaps a bigger impact has been made by the man who engineered the very tactics that have benefitted United such.

One of the main initial criticisms about hiring Solskjaer as the caretaker manager was the fact that he lacked experience, his only former stint in the Premier League with Cardiff ending in relegation, and the brute attacking tactics employed at Molde thought to be too one-dimensional for success in England.

Enter Mike Phelan, former assistant manager under Sir Alex Ferguson and a former Red Devil himself. It is arguably his tactics and presence that has brought about this rejuvenated United side, and if Solskjaer does bag the full-time gig, it is paramount that Phelan stays on as well.

Firstly, the years he spent under Sir Alex Ferguson have awarded him with a massive trove of experience. Essentially, it was Phelan who handled daily training drills, and as of such, was crucial to the success of nearly all the famous United rosters in the final years of SAF.

Sir Alex Ferguson (L) talks with coaches Mike Phelan (R) and Rene Meulensteen during a training session.

REUTERS/Phil Noble

It is this brilliance that Solskjaer has retained. Reports suggest that Phelan has been given exclusive duty to organize and conduct attacking drills, and it is also claimed that these drills go in the excess of 45 minutes at times.

The impact is quite telling. Following the magic-touch of Phelan, United have found the back of the net a whopping 33 times in 15 games across all competitions, drawing blanks only against PSG and recently versus Liverpool. The distinguishing factor here is that the Red Devils are no longer content at attaining a lead and then defending – they are now hungry for goals.

Further, Phelan’s approach is in massive contrast to Mourinho’s, with the Portuguese tactician used to bombarding his players with information about the opposition and using it to drive their defensive ploys through. Phelan chooses simplicity, urging players to improve themselves and perfect their tactics, reminiscent of how SAF used to run things at the club.


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Another return that Phelan has ensured is the penchant for late goals. It is by no accident that the Fergie time goals are scored and that United become more aggressive when chasing the game in the final moments. These are actions that the lads have trained tirelessly for, learning how to best box and overwhelm the opponents. Although the visible impact of this tactic was on show only against Burnley, and almost hit well for Liverpool if Smalling had scored late, it’s nevertheless a means that United possess in their arsenal.

Next, Phelan has a strong rapport with the players. A simple look at pitch-side action will show that the assistant manager is almost the second gaffer with regard to instructing the players. This also translates well into managing big names. Having worked under Ferguson, Phelan has first-hand knowledge on how egos ought to be placated and frustration quelled. It may not be simple luck that stars like Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez have been content with not being played regularly. Phelan’s influence here seems evident.

In fact, the best indication of the assistant manager’s value can be assessed through a Ferguson action. The biggest qualm he had with David Moyes, his hand-picked successor who enjoyed his strong support, was that the former Everton gaffer hadn’t retained Phelan in his coaching team. This regret was shared by Moyes himself, labeling it as a factor in his abysmal tenure at Old Trafford.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with assistant coaches Mike Phelan and Michael Carrick.

Reuters/Jason Cairnduff

In a tweet before the Liverpool game, Phelan featured a photo of himself with several notebooks, labeling the process to be a think tank. It is highly unlikely that this was merely scene-setting for a clever tweet. Phelan masterminds many crucial tactics.

Solskjaer didn’t learn how to balance play and adjust to Premier League dynamics overnight. It is instead the guiding hand of Phelan that has brought about this change. It is not for simple warmth and respite from the cruel Mancunian rains that the Norwegian huddles closely with his team of Phelan, Carrick, and McKenna. Together, this lot has the experience and wisdom that Solskjaer alone is yet to completely acquire.

Simply put, the Norwegian has brought back to the side the passion, philosophy, and winning mentality that the club badly needs, but it is through the experience of Phelan that they are able to translate that practically onto the pitch.