Sporting institutions often talk about the vague concept of cultural DNA, but recent decisions perhaps show that United are finally engaging in some joined-up thinking behind the scenes
Sancho excited to play with Utd’s young stars
Sports teams love to talk about DNA, but it’s a hard thing to define and a phrase open to cliche and management speak.
It is not hard to imagine David Brent with his feet up on his desk and his hands pressed together earnestly telling the bemused reporter from Inside Paper about the “DNA” of his staff at the Slough branch of Wernham Hogg.
Yet the abstract concept’s popularity in a sporting context has exploded in recent years amid talk of instilling a “a winning culture” across organisations and creating “people as well as athletes” at academies.
Over the past few years Manchester United have really embraced the message, with boardroom members, coaching staff and players banging the drum for the club’s good intentions.
A healthy chunk of the reasoning behind such a collective message is cynical: it helps form a cohesive, positive brand people associate with United. This angle is demonstrated by the fact that £55 Manchester United hoodies are the first thing Google suggests when you type in the phrase.
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But there is plenty more beyond the marketing power which is evident in important, real-life decisions the club has made recently.
The main reason Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was hired as manager back in December 2018 was his history with United.
As a former player, it was often stated, he just understood the club; he was a lasting vestige to the golden era of Sir Alex Ferguson and someone who was referring to “the Man Utd standards, the DNA” back in April 2019.
Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho were hired on reputation and a record of success; Solskjaer on association.
As United near the three-year anniversary of that decision there are clear signs they are doubling down on their approach. Firstly, and most obviously, Solskjaer has been handed a new three-year contract.
More interestingly, the club is showing its joined-up thinking in other departments. Whether it works remains to be seen, but it is undeniably part of a concerted attempt to create a homogenised entity.
Solskjaer is far from the only person at United who “gets” the club. His coaching staff contains former player Michael Carrick, Fergie’s former assistant Mike Phelan and Kieran McKenna, who has previously worked with the club’s Under-18s.
Away from the training pitch at Carrington you will find another former player. Darren Fletcher was appointed as United’s first technical director as part of a rejigged hierarchy under head of football development John Murtough.
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During his playing days Fletcher was a firm Fergie favourite during a period of sustained success – a fact which was referred to when his new role was announced.
“If there was one thing I was sure of, it was ‘we cannot lose Darren’,” Solskjaer said in March. “He has history with the club, he’s been brought up here from a young boy to a Champions League winner and serial winner. His DNA is what we want.”
Fletcher, it was said in the official club statement, is there in part to ensure everything is “aligned with Manchester United’s values and culture”.
Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward added a mention of “the club’s DNA” and the “delivery of our football philosophy” for good measure.
On Sunday another step was taken to strengthen the links to the club’s past, as former academy player Paul McShane was hired to coach across the Under-15s to Under-23s.
United’s head of academy, Nick Cox, described the move as further proof of United’s “innovative approach” before reiterating the importance of having a previous association with the club.
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He said: “As an academy graduate, who has had an outstanding career, Paul knows the club inside out and can pass on this wealth of knowledge every day to our young players.”
It doesn’t stop there, either. There are signs United are planning well into the future.
Some eyebrows were raised when Juan Mata signed a one-year contract extension with United earlier this summer.
The 33-year-old made just 10 starts last season and is very much a fringe player under Solskjaer these days. Yet there is more to it than just on-the-pitch performances.
The Manchester Evenings News says he has been offered an ambassadorial position for when he retires, while coaching is another goal in his sights.
James Williamson – AMA/Getty Images)
“I’m starting to do some courses. I’m doing a management course and also coaching badges,” he told the club website recently.
“It’s nice to do things in your time off, when you become over 30 it’s important for football players to start thinking about what to do next.”
Mata joined United back in 2014 from Chelsea and, as one of the nicest men in football, is the dictionary definition of the classic phrase “a good guy to have around the place”.
Nemanja Matic, 32, is also doing his coaching badges and looking towards what his future holds after retirement. As a leader on the pitch and two-time Premier League winner with Chelsea, Matic would likely have plenty to offer as a coach.
If Solskjaer stays put until June 2024 – as United will hope – then it is not hard to see Mata and Matic joining the club as academy coaches to earn their stripes.
That eventuality would certainly serve as proof of United finally engaging in long-term thinking and making decisions based on a coherent policy.
It is early days, but after years of short-termism in the chaotic post-Ferguson years, United appear to be strengthening Solskjaer’s hand by planning for a dynasty based on genuine club affiliation.
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