Over the past season, and stemming from a difficult managerial transition, much has been written about the apparent failings of Manchester United across all competitions. A high percentage of the media, fans and pundits have had a field day, often reaching the conclusions “the empire is crumbling” or “the players and management don’t know what they’re doing.”
Has this been a fair assumption? In my opinion, it hasn’t. The biggest psychological issue resides with people as a whole, rather than the players and coaching staff.
One of the most challenging aspects faced by Manchester United over the period of their existence is the fact that many of the people in the media (and fans from other clubs!) are keen to make Utd favourites to win every trophy. Most seasons, amongst the betting prices, Utd are consistently high and we are expected to challenge, or at least reach the latter stages of everything we enter. Sadly, this euphoric view from the fans and media is matched equally by doom and despair when things don’t go our way. From a psychological perspective, euphoria, matched by doom and despair is found in human beings who lack a clear sense of deep, personal identity and have low confidence in themselves.
As an ex professional player and someone who is currently writing a PhD in this area, my first piece of advice as we head into the new season would be for Mr Van Gaal to shield the players from the frail mentality of a proportion of its hugely passionate followers. It’s absolutely crucial to nurture and restore the operating culture of yesteryear, and make sure players are definitively aware of their roles, responsibilities and freedom to choose the right course of action. Anyone not prepared to do this, or toe the line should be removed with immediate effect.
In terms of individual players going into battle this season, the key quality in my opinion is a term often heard when I played, but not as much in the modern day; character. Character is a quality acquired over a long term period and to have good character, one must have solid foundations.
So what is character and how is it developed? Character lies within the deeper components of a human being, where the psychological qualities such as courage, humility, integrity and passion reside. Two or three players within Utd’s side have these qualities and need to be joined by others if we want to progress and achieve once more. Far too many lacked character last season and, alarmingly, the speedy emergence of scapegoating indicated clear signs of a poor organisational culture. Very few wanted to stand up and be counted and sadly, most were readily prepared to hide, point fingers, or go missing in action all too often.
In preparation of counteracting the above, early signs are encouraging. It seems Van Gaal is quite categoric in the requirements needed to return to a healthy, business-like, systematic, winning culture. In fact, when this type of culture and character congeal, it is more likely that players will play at their best for consistent amounts of time. When the players and coaching staff are singing from the same hymn sheet, creating a cultural congruence, the force to meet challenges head on becomes all more powerful. In simple terms, it really is all about having the skills and knowing deep down you have what it takes to get success. This is what was lacking for most of last term.
For Utd to bounce back this season and get amongst the trophy challenges, players will have to show up, stand tall, be authentic, dig deep and demonstrate resilience, as sport at elite level is all about strong characters staying with tasks in tough times. Any early jubilation, followed by moaning, destructive comments or vitriolic mudslinging must be left to the media and fans.