ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Manchester United and their manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, are enjoying their summer so far. Solskjaer has signed a new long-term contract and key transfer targets Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane have been secured in plenty of time ahead of the new Premier League campaign.
Last season ended with a surprise defeat in the Europa League to Villarreal, while the relationship between supporters and the owners at Old Trafford, the Glazer family, reached a new low after the botched attempt to sign up to the European Super League. United haven’t won a trophy for four years and it’s been eight years since their last title in 2013 but there is genuine hope Solskjaer’s team will be legitimate challengers this time around.
With just over a week to go before their first game of the 2021-22 campaign, against Leeds United at Old Trafford, Solskjaer sat down at United’s preseason training base in St. Andrews, Scotland for an in-depth interview on the summer so far, his new signings, the spending of his rivals and his expectations for the new season.
ESPN: This summer couldn’t have gone any better for you, could it?
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer: It depends on how you look at it. Of course, I would have liked to have had a few winners coming back [from the Euros and Copa America], that would have been good. Transfer-wise, we’ve done our business early. [Varane] hasn’t done his medical yet, but that should be OK. I’m very pleased with what we’ve done.
You barely had any time to prepare last summer because of the quick turnaround between seasons, but this time you’ve had a few friendlies and two camps: one in Surrey and one here in St. Andrews.
OGS: Last season was unique. We had five days with everyone [before the start of the season]. We’ve not got everyone back yet; we’re still lacking a few. Every year that there’s a [summer of international football], it’s difficult. Luke [Shaw], Harry [Maguire], Fred — a few — will only have the Everton game [on Saturday] to prepare.
It’s still not perfect, because I think teams with fewer players in tournaments do have an advantage early on, but we’re as ready as we can be. Fred played nine games over the summer, and he’s had three weeks away from us — and then two weeks to get ready again — so they should be ready.
OGS: You put every season into blocks, but the first six or seven games are very important to set the momentum and to give you a chance. I read somewhere that Pep [Guardiola] said you can’t win the league in the first eight games, but you can lose the chance to win it, and that’s what happened to us last season.
I felt we lost too many points early on. From Nov. 1 until the Leicester game in May, we only lost one league game. That’s the consistency we want to see again.
Is there a chance [Jadon] Sancho and [Raphael] Varane could play against Leeds United?
OGS: They still haven’t trained with us,, and I need to see how they are. I can’t see them being available for Everton [this weekend], but hopefully they will be ready to be on the bench [against Leeds].
The transfer window has seemed to go a lot smoother this summer. Did that have anything to do with John Murtough being appointed football director and Darren Fletcher coming in as technical director in March?
OGS: John and Fletch are doing a very good job. The whole system has worked. We’ve identified the players early on, and with Jadon, we spoke about him 12 months ago, at least. John and Fletch coming in has been a big plus.
You’ve spoken about needing to rebuild since you arrived as manager. Is this now the squad you had in mind when you started that process?
OGS: When you’ve had the experiences I’ve had as a player at this club, the vision is about how we’re going to be on the pitch and off the pitch. We’re a family, and there’s no one bigger than the team — that’s important for me. You have to understand you are part of a team.
The only place these boys can be normal is when they play football. Wherever they are, whether they’re with their friends or in town, it’s a big thing. But when they come in here they feel like one of many. That’s the feeling I had when I played under Sir Alex [Ferguson]. We all stuck together; we were all doing it for one cause, and one cause only, and that was that the team did well.
You’ve said you couldn’t have asked for more backing from the club this summer. Does that then increase the pressure on you?
OGS: There’s always pressure here to win the league and to win trophies. For me, it’s the pressure I put on myself and the pressure the players put on themselves to achieve the best you can. That the board also wanted to extend my contract is proof we’re going in the right direction, but we have to keep on moving in the right direction.
You must be delighted the club wanted to offer you a new contract so early?
OGS: Of course you’re happy when they approach you. I had a year [left], plus they had an option so there was still literally two years left, but I think maybe the signal of the continuity is important for the players as well that they know this is the way we want to do it.
For me, you have to do well enough to stay anyway. It doesn’t matter if you have a 10-year contract or a one year contract: if you don’t do well, off you go.
You still feel that pressure that if you don’t start well next season, there could be questions about your future?
OGS: You feel under pressure all the time. At this club, with this responsibility, it’s not just clinging onto your job; it’s about the responsibility that’s in my hands. We’ve got millions of fans, the players, the club, the staff… and the responsibility is on getting results. As long as you get results and improve, that’s what I felt that we’ve improved all the time. As long as you can see improvement.
We’ve gone from third to second [in the Premier League] and a lot closer in points, we’ve gone from three semifinals to a final and one kick away from winning so it’s about taking the next step now. That’s the challenge.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer speaks about the arrivals of Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane to Manchester United.
With the new arrivals, is this squad now strong enough to win the Premier League?
OGS: I’d rather be an optimist and be wrong, than be a pessimist and be right. Of course these boys can, with a maximum effort, maximum season and maximum sacrifice. Every day is a chance to get closer to our target, and that’s to come together as a team to give yourself a chance to win every game. But every day is also a chance to step backwards, so it’s down to us as a coaching staff, but also the players, to keep improving.
Is there a chance of more signings before the transfer deadline?
OGS: Anything from now is a bonus. I have to say that with the two signings we’ve got, we’ve strengthened where we wanted to strengthen. Let’s see what happens. You never know in football. Anything can happen with ins and outs.
There’s lots of talk about what Manchester City are looking to do in the transfer market this summer. Do you pay attention to what your rivals are doing in that respect?
OGS: Of course you pay attention and you notice that there’s possibly big money being spent somewhere else. You have to keep up with the challenges. Anyone who ends up above last year’s champions will be champions.
OGS: We need a big squad. The start is important, the whole season is important, but you need to arrive in April and May fresh and with enough options. Some might go on loan until Christmas, some might go for a season, but I don’t want to be too light in any position.
OGS: It depends on the characters you’ve got and how they gel. It’s healthy competition. If you’re too comfortable, I don’t think you get the best out of yourself. You need an edge, and you need an edge of “if I don’t perform, someone else is going to take my place,” but it has to be healthy for the team and healthy for the group. If it’s toxic and it’s energy-sapping that’s not great.
Last year, it was a new situation for David and a new situation for Dean. This year, let’s see how it works out.
Gary Neville said last season that as a defender, he always preferred to know who the first-choice goalkeeper was…
OGS: I enjoyed having one first-choice right-back when I played, but I never had one!
There is speculation again about Paul Pogba‘s future. He says he wants to win trophies, but do you think the new signings prove to him that United is the place to do it and that he’ll extend his contract?
OGS: I hope every player thinks this is the place to be to win trophies. When you sign for Manchester United, you have to rise to the challenge. Paul has come back and he’s fresh, and he’s always such a positive boy. The talks I’ve had with him have all been positive.
With Sancho arriving, there is going to be a lot of competition for places in the forward positions next season.
OGS: We need to arrive in April and May with players fresh. We need players with that “X-factor” who can make a difference. Bruno [Fernandes] last year for example, maybe I overplayed him but it was because he was so important for us. Adding these extra players — Jesse [Lingard] coming back, Jadon [Sancho] coming in, Anthony [Martial] being fit again — gives us a lot more to work with.
Have you been impressed with how Donny van de Beek has come back to preseason? It looks like he’s a lot stronger.
OGS: He’s put on a bit of muscle, yeah. He had last season to learn about English football, and he’s used the summer well. You never know how players from abroad [are going to] come in — some players need a year. You see Fred’s development and evolution and there are other players that just come in and take to it straight away, it depends.
The Premier League is such a fantastic league, and the intensity of it is unbelievable. You see, you have Man City against Chelsea in the Champions League final. You have Liverpool, who have been amazing the past few seasons — that’s the competition to win the league. We lost to Sheffield United, who were bottom of the league. No game in the Premier League is a given, not at all.
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Does the challenge posed by Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool make this one of the toughest Premier League seasons?
OGS: For me, it feels like this season coming up is one of the strongest Premier League seasons. Of course it’s been City and Liverpool fighting it out for a few years. I feel us and Chelsea have spent well and worked well and we should look at ourselves as potential challengers, but it’s potential. The first game is the most important, then the first block of games, and then keeping that momentum.
The one blip this summer was having the friendly at Preston cancelled because of a suspected COVID-19 outbreak. Is there any concern that Premier League games could be affected because restrictions in the UK have been lifted and the rates are still high?
OGS: That [the Preston game] I think was a testing mistake because all nine tested positive and then next day ,when we did a proper PCR test, they were negative, so if that happened the day before the first league game, that would be a problem. What happened is not our fault, but it cost us preparation time, it cost us a couple of days away from the training ground. So when you say the summer has been perfect, it’s not been perfect because the world is not perfect; it’s not an ideal world. We live in a world where the [infection] rates are still high.
Footballers have been privileged because when the world has been closed, we’ve been able to play football. Now that the rest has opened up, we have to be really careful because if they spend too long in a place, they might catch something, so we’ve got to be really careful. But it’s a sacrifice we’ve got to make to play football.
As I said we are privileged, but it’s a difficult situation because their life is not normal. I think it’s been easier for us because we’ve been able to come into work, train together, play games and yeah, we’ve had to live in a bubble, but other people have had to stay inside and not be able to go outside and see anyone. We’ve been privileged, but at the moment our day is different to anyone else’s because signing autographs for the kids, taking pictures — yeah we want to do it, but we can’t. That’s hard for us.
For the Leeds game, Old Trafford will be full, fans will be outside, we want to engage with them, but we can’t really because you think if I catch something here, it’s a four-game ban. Literally. So it’s such a difficult one.
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Have you had conversations with the squad about getting vaccinated, or has it been left as a personal choice for them?
OGS: Yeah, we’ve informed them and some of them are already fully vaccinated, some are not sure. But we’re going to have a bigger session with them now because I think it’s important that everyone knows what it’s about.
Last season you had to deal with a difficult situation between the owners and the fans, you must be happy to see the Glazers take steps to remedy that?
OGS: The communication between the fans and the club is important, and of course I was there and I have a very good relationship with the fans and with the club. What happened was not an ideal situation, but I tried to make the best out of a difficult situation.
You’ve now got a contract until at least 2024, what are you looking to achieve in that time?
OGS: We want to be successful. We want to start winning trophies and we’ve laid the foundation, and I feel now that the foundation has been laid on the training ground, in the transfer market and with the work that the coaches and the staff that everyone has been doing with the players. I think we’ve made [the players] more robust and ready to face the challenges of a Man United player. That’s not the same as playing in any other team and I think everyone that’s been here or arrived here, they know the demands and expectations are higher.
Does it help you get that message across to the players because you experienced it first-hand?
OGS: Sometimes you think back and you have to be mentally strong and robust. You can’t be flaky at this club because then you might as well knock on my door and say “this is not for me.” You have to handle the ups and the downs.
If you win, it’s not like you’re the best player in the world and if you lose you’re not the worst player in the world, you’ve got to trust and believe in yourself without showing off. I like the arrogance and confidence on the pitch, but I don’t like arrogance off the pitch because you’re playing football, you’re a good footballer.
Can that make recruitment more difficult here because it’s about more than just identifying good players?
OGS: Yeah, it’s about character, that’s the difference. There are so many good players out there, but some of them don’t handle the pressure. Some do. Some thrive under pressure, some enjoy it. Walking into the dressing room with Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane, Gary Neville… we challenged each other every day and now we’re getting more and more characters in this dressing room as well and they do enjoy being a Man United player.
You have to enjoy it — if you don’t enjoy being a Man United player, you can play somewhere mid-table.
Is that why it’s important to be patient in the transfer market? You waited a year to sign Sancho, rather than spending the money to bring in another winger last summer. OGS: Definitely, and that’s what the club and the owners have been very good at as well. We had an open dialogue where we said OK, if we didn’t get him there’s no point for me signing someone we don’t want when [Sancho], for example, when he becomes available again, we can go and get him. If we had signed someone else then we would have had a right winger. It’s about getting the right characters. I think we proved that last year with Edinson [Cavani]. Bringing him in was so important and he’s shown the way for many. It would have been easy for you to say last summer “just get me a right winger.” You also refused to “panic-buy” a striker when Romelu Lukaku left [in 2019]. OGS: That’s been communication and dialogue, and a plan. We know that this is what we need, and it might take a little bit longer, which means there’s no point signing someone for the sake of signing someone. Yeah, we brought Odion [Ighalo] in on loan to give Anthony [Martial] a bit of a rest in certain games in that season, but it was important that we did because then Mason [Greenwood] kept developing. You know what you’ve got and if I suddenly signed someone who blocked the path of a young kid then we’ve lost a striker or forward in two or three years to come. I manage for the club. I don’t manage for me or the players, I manage for the club, and that’s the whole job to do the best for the club and not for me. That will never be me. And finally, what are your expectations for this season? OGS: That we get to April and May challenging. Challenging in the league, challenging in the cups we’re in and hopefully then there’s another cup, there’s been a final. We’ve lost in the semis as well, so of course we want to challenge for trophies. That’s the aim.
Is that why it’s important to be patient in the transfer market? You waited a year to sign Sancho, rather than spending the money to bring in another winger last summer.
OGS: Definitely, and that’s what the club and the owners have been very good at as well. We had an open dialogue where we said OK, if we didn’t get him there’s no point for me signing someone we don’t want when [Sancho], for example, when he becomes available again, we can go and get him. If we had signed someone else then we would have had a right winger.
It’s about getting the right characters. I think we proved that last year with Edinson [Cavani]. Bringing him in was so important and he’s shown the way for many.
It would have been easy for you to say last summer “just get me a right winger.” You also refused to “panic-buy” a striker when Romelu Lukaku left [in 2019].
OGS: That’s been communication and dialogue, and a plan. We know that this is what we need, and it might take a little bit longer, which means there’s no point signing someone for the sake of signing someone. Yeah, we brought Odion [Ighalo] in on loan to give Anthony [Martial] a bit of a rest in certain games in that season, but it was important that we did because then Mason [Greenwood] kept developing. You know what you’ve got and if I suddenly signed someone who blocked the path of a young kid then we’ve lost a striker or forward in two or three years to come.
I manage for the club. I don’t manage for me or the players, I manage for the club, and that’s the whole job to do the best for the club and not for me. That will never be me.
And finally, what are your expectations for this season?
OGS: That we get to April and May challenging. Challenging in the league, challenging in the cups we’re in and hopefully then there’s another cup, there’s been a final. We’ve lost in the semis as well, so of course we want to challenge for trophies. That’s the aim.