Manchester United have been in sensational form since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over in late December.
The Red Devils have won 14 of 18 games, including huge away wins against Spurs, Arsenal, Chelsea and PSG. They’ve dragged themselves back into the Champions League qualification places and are in the quarter-finals of this year’s competition having made history in the round of 16. They’ve been so successful that Solskjaer has been given the managerial job on a permanent basis.
That’s huge, and is a fairly judicious appointment as well. But to lay all the praise Solskjaer’s way is to ignore a very crucial figure in Manchester United’s turnaround: assistant manager Mike Phelan.
When Solskjaer took over, one of the big decisions he made was to ensure that Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna were retained from the previous coaching regime. They are two young coaches highly regarded by the squad, so it made sense, but he also brought back Mike Phelan. This wasn’t as obvious a change but was very, very smart.
Phelan was last at United with Sir Alex Ferguson. In fact, he had been there for some time, initially at their Centre of Excellence before becoming a first-team coach back in 2001. He continued in that role until Carlos Queiroz departed for Portugal in 2008, at which point he became assistant manager; a role he held until Sir Alex left the club in 2013.
The key thing to note is that under Ferguson, particularly in the latter years of his reign, it was often the assistant manager who took charge of the daily training sessions with the great Scot acting more as an American Football head coach would, overseeing the general direction of the side and managing things on matchday.
What that means is that all through United’s 2006 renaissance, the emergence and subsequent dominance of what is often considered Sir Alex Ferguson’s greatest side, the one built around Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, it was Mike Phelan coaching the side.
Mike Phelan was organising attacking drills as Cristiano Ronaldo scored 44 goals in 2007/08 and Wayne Rooney hit 34 in 2009/10 and 2011/12.
Mike Phelan was organising the defensive drills as Manchester United went an incredible 1,311 minutes without conceding a goal in the Premier League.
Mike Phelan was taking the training sessions as Manchester United became the first side since Valencia in 2001 to make it to consecutive Champions League finals (and then later make it three finals in four years).
It was actually a shock when David Moyes got rid of Phelan. Something he has since admitted was a mistake as his United career descended into farce almost from the get-go as he had no idea how to handle the pressures and expectations of managing a super club full of elite stars with all the attendant egos to match.
Hindsight is 20-20, which is why the Scot is now comfortable admitting: “looking back, Mike Phelan would have been a really strong person to have kept at the club.” Well, duh.
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Solskjaer made no such error and instantly brought Phelan in to help him navigate the task of rescuing Manchester United; it has worked tremendously.
Much as he did in 2008, Phelan immediately helped settle the United defence from a unit that had shipped 29 goals in 19 Premier League games, to one that has now conceded just six in the nine games he’s been coaching.
United’s players are no longer bombarded with details about opponents (though they still receive them) instead they mostly work on their own abilities with extensive attacking drills.
Phelan’s training sessions focus on ball work, and it has been notable with every single United player now looking more comfortable in possession and United, in general, looking more assured of what they were doing.
United have bagged 29 goals in the 13 Premier League games since Phelan’s return. Compare that to them taking all 17 games under Mourinho to hit that same total of 29 and you now have a Manchester United side that scores more and concedes less. They move and play with the swagger of Ferguson-era sides (if not the overall ability) and there is such a cohesive sense of joy there.
Without wanting to take too much away from Solskjaer, the way in which stars like Pogba, De Gea, Sánchez and Lukaku have all suddenly upped their game is not a coincidence (yes, Sánchez still looks pony, but that’s an upgrade from the dead horse he was under Mourinho). Magic Mike’s touch can be seen there as well.
Phelan knows how to handle big names and big personalities; he watched Ferguson do it for years and then when he was assistant did it himself. Phelan has surely played a major role in getting Romelu Lukaku to buy into the idea that he will not start every single game as he did under Mourinho. It would have been easy to see the Belgian sulk his way around Old Trafford given his very obvious demotion, but there’s not been a bit of that; he is 100% committed.
What’s more, Phelan has been great value on social media. Embracing his cult hero status (for always wearing shorts) and just generally putting positive energy out there and energising the fans with it. In 2019 that, too, is part of being a coach of an elite side. You have to engage with fans and keep their morale up, and he’s doing just that.
Phelan is a dream assistant; incredibly skilled, confident, experienced and whilst he doesn’t lack self-belief, he has no delusions of grandeur. When Sir Alex Ferguson very obviously peter-principled David Moyes and he sacked Phelan, Phelan’s only complaint was that he thought he could be useful. not that he should have been made manager.
“I have no point to prove,” he said in a 2016 interview. “I had a fantastic career at United, as player, coach and assistant. It’s not for me to hold any grudges. I had 18 years there which is more than most people get.”
Well, assuming Ole Gunnar Solskjaer doesn’t get rid of him now he’s in the job (and assuming everything continues to go well under their leadership), Mike Phelan can look forward to at least another three years at Manchester United. Ole’s at the wheel but Magic Mike’s got the map and is showing him the way!