There is a fascinating segment in the new Sir Alex Ferguson documentary ‘Never Give In’ that gives an incredible insight into his man management style that worked so well at Manchester United.
The irony is this segment comes way before the part of the film that focusses on his time at Old Trafford.
Some United fans (either the younger ones or those with shorter memories) might not fully appreciate the job Ferguson did at Aberdeen before he even got to United — turning a provincial Scottish club into a European power capable of toppling Bayern Munich and Real Madrid — but the legendary Glaswegian did just that. And according to former Dons and latterly, United, midfielder Gordon Strachan, he did it all with just a few key buzz words.
Concentration. That was the main word. Training hard, playing as a team, out-running the opponents — they were all taken as givens.
But listen to Ferguson himself in the documentary and he will repeat the word several times. As does Strachan.
Rio Ferdinand has also spoken about how Ferguson turned him from a talented young Rolls Royce of a defender, to one responsible enough to shine on any stage in world football. Improving his concentration levels was the key.
Ferdinand also used the word when explaining why some players don’t make the grade, despite having bags of ability. Speaking about Ravel Morrison, the teenage wonderkid who never quite made it at United, Ferdinand once said: “The concentration levels that you need to be a top, top player — to be on it every day. He could never get that all married together.”
Presumably, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer heard the word ‘concentration’ more than a few times from Ferguson in the dressing room during the decade the Norwegian spent under his stewardship at Old Trafford. So you would hope Solskjaer is passing the same message onto his players, especially before key games like finals and semi-finals.
Yet United’s performance-levels in these games under Solskjaer for the past two years would suggest otherwise. They have been prone to criminal lapses in their concentration.
It became a running joke in the 2019/20 season that Solskjaer could not get past a semi-final — losing three in the space of a few weeks in the FA Cup, League Cup and Europa League. And while he improved to a final in 2020/21, United lost their focus to concede a key goal from a set-piece and were then beaten at the climax of a gruelling penalty shootout.
They also lost another League Cup semi-final to City, and were quickly knocked off top spot in the league after losing their bottle in January. Some claimed they got vertigo, becoming hyper-aware of their position at the summit. Either way, they didn’t stay there for long.
It would be unfair to claim United have always lost their concentration in big games under Solskjaer. Quite clearly, they have made progress in many areas and won their fair share of key encounters — beating City several times in the league and Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham and PSG all on occasion — only for the last hurdle to prove the most difficult.
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Solskjaer used Ferguson’s favourite word before another big game that United did win — the top four decider against Leicester in July 2020 — and it clearly paid off.
“Focus and concentration is vital in football,” the United manager said. “When you play against quality teams and quality players, one lapse of concentration can hurt you.”
As Ferguson proved in his early years at United, it can take time to build a philosophy, to drum into players the importance of professionalism, fitness and concentration. The Scot took four years to win silverware
Solskjaer will hit the three-year mark at Old Trafford, providing he stays until at least December 2021, and he needs to take another lesson from his old mentor if he’s to break the trophy drought.