PERTH, Australia — Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is the man charged with turning around Manchester United’s fortunes.
Two weeks into his first preseason as manager — and less than a month before the Premier League campaign kicks off against Chelsea at Old Trafford on Aug. 11 — Solskjaer spoke to ESPN in a roundtable setting, which also included The Times, The Telegragh, The Sun, The Mail and The Mirror, at the Crown Towers hotel in Perth, United’s team base.
Among the many topics covered: his hopes for the 2019-20 season, the futures of Paul Pogba, Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku, his strategy to catch Manchester City and Liverpool and the work left to do in the transfer market.
This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Ole, it’s your first preseason as Manchester United manager; how it does it compare with the last one you had with Molde?
Solskjaer: Of course it’s different. When you’re at Manchester United, everything is different, but I’m used to this from before. But it has moved on since I left as well. Everything — the fans, and football in general — it’s bigger. There’s more media interest, so it’s nice.
Q: Do you sense that the players and staff are revived now after a disappointing end to the season?
Solskjaer: It was disappointing, the last few months, obviously, but they’ve come back and it’s been really encouraging. You didn’t expect anything else though. You expected them to come back with a little bit of grit. It’s only two weeks into the preseason and it’s been very encouraging.
Q: Has the mood in the camp been as positive as you had hoped it would be?
Solskjaer: Yeah. Sometimes you expect players to be more negative and maybe we’ve been too kind to them because they’ve not moaned enough. So maybe the preseason hasn’t been hard enough. I can still remember when I wasn’t able to walk down the stairs. You had to walk backwards and all this, but I don’t think we’ve had them there yet.
Q: You’ve been clear you want to build a team that can play on the front foot. Do you think after this tour you will have a squad who are physically able to meet your demands?
Solskjaer: I would think so and that’s obviously the aim now, to put the fitness into everyone and get everyone fit for Aug. 11. But it’s after the first international break, that’s when the games come thick and fast. You can almost call it preseason, the first month of the season, because with the first four or five games there are no midweek games, so we’ve still got time to build a foundation. We needed it because the stats have shown we haven’t been up there but there’s been a big improvement. Like Scott [McTominay] has said, they haven’t had sessions like this for the last few preseasons.
Q: Can we expect a transformation in the way United look on the pitch this season?
Solskjaer: You’ve got opposition that wants to play as well. But we have a clear aim and we want to look a certain way. We know it’s going to take time. It might not be a transformation like, [clicks fingers] “wow, that’s a new team,” but I think most of us saw the intention on Saturday [against Perth Glory]. That’s the way we want to play. We want to play on the front foot but you can’t do that for 90 minutes in 38 league games. That’s hard in the Premier League.
Q: Last season there seemed to be a disconnect between the players and the fans — do the players have to win back the trust of the supporters?
Solskjaer: I think it was a mentally draining season, and physically, but mentally because there were ups and downs and especially when you change manager right in the middle. We got a boost with the first few games, won a few, then got a few injuries and towards the end it was flat … We’ve just got to make sure we get more consistency.
Q: Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho didn’t make a great success of this job. What makes you confident that you can?
Solskjaer: It depends on what you think is success. They won trophies. I’ve admired Jose, Louis and David [Moyes] — admired them because I was still a player when they were successful managers. We’re all different. I think they were more on the pitch, really on the pitch. That type of coach. I’ve got some great coaches and [they] will do most of the coaching work. We’re all different and we’ve all got different management styles.
Solskjaer: I know it’s hard getting players in and over the line. We’ve been doing our jobs. We’ve been finding, identifying players. Scouting them. But they have got clubs. It took time with Aaron [Wan-Bissaka], it took time with Dan [James] but they got it over the line. It’s not like we’re going to sign 10 players. It can’t be a quick fix. As I’ve said to you, we’re working on one or two and we’re still hoping but I also understand that the market has changed. Prices have soared.
Q: It sometimes feels from the outside that there is a Man United tax on players and prices go up once you’re interested. Has that been a problem?
Solskjaer: We have been linked with so many players. I am sure you don’t believe every single player that we have been linked with, but I think that Man United sometimes have, because of the wealth, maybe we have had to pay more, a bigger premium to get players in and that’s just the world we live in. And we have taken our time and we are not going to overpay but we have to get the right people in, the right players.
Q: Is there a maximum number of new signings you would like before the transfer deadline?
Solskjaer: No, there’s never any maximum because there are players here that are coming into preseason as well that are … I might just have a look at him again because if he has changed as I think he has and it looks like, he might have a career here.
Q: You were critical of the players after the defeat to Everton [4-0 at Goodison Park in April] but are you reconsidering your opinion of one or two?
Solskjaer: On certain players, yeah you do reconsider because there are only 11 players on the pitch and there are only 25 players in the squad that you can get into that squad. Let’s see three or four years down the line where we’re at, if I have been successful and who’s there and it’s going to take time. It’s going to take time for players to buy into this and to see “Hmmm I’m not part of the plans, I might have to go.”
Q: You’ve signed a three-year contract. How long do you think it will take to become title challengers again?
Solskjaer: I am always an optimist and let’s see how we start off and how close we get this season. A successful season is if we win a trophy. That’s a good season. You have got to aim for trophies. You want to say Premier League, you want to say Europa League, FA Cup, Carabao Cup — maybe in that order — but I am not going to discard it and say that we can’t. It’s not what we expect straight away. If we get the consistency… hopefully we can get David [De Gea] over the line and signed and we might be contenders, who knows?
Q: With the Europa League, is that a trophy you really want to win? And how will you approach it in terms of the team — is it a chance for the young players?
Solskjaer: Yeah, I think that it’ll be a chance for some of the young ones, definitely. Then again, it’s a great chance of qualifying for the Champions League for next season, so I think you’ll see quite a few of the young ones you’ve seen already. They are exciting and we need to blood them in the right tournament and it depends on who you play, it depends on the stage of the tournament, group stages — every weekend is a possibility — you can’t plan three months down the line.
Q: Do you view the Europa League as just as good a route back into the Champions League as the Premier League?
Solskjaer: It is a route but in cup competitions you never know, it’s the luck of the dice … It’s over the season and if we can get the consistency in the league and get a settled team in the league, I’m sure we’ve got a chance of getting closer to the top two and let’s see how close.
Q: Do you think the fans are understanding of the size of the job you have here?
Solskjaer: Our fans know about football, many have followed successful years, but there have been many who have been before that as well, probably them you don’t see on Twitter or social media, so you don’t see them as much. And the young ones that have just had the success are maybe like: “Where’s that?” The Premier League has changed, you have to say [Manchester] City how good they were last year. You’ve got Liverpool who won the Champions League, Tottenham in the final, Chelsea and Arsenal. When I played there were two: us and Arsenal for a long, long time. And then Chelsea came.
Q: Do you feel like you’re a long way behind Man City and Liverpool?
Solskjaer: It did feel like it towards the end of last season but it didn’t feel like it in the beginning when I came in. And in the 21 [league] games we had when I came in, we were still third in that 21-game period. And that is including that bad spell at the end. It was only those two that were consistent, so we’re still third in that respect.
Q: How about in the game against City [2-0 defeat at Old Trafford in April] — did you feel there was a gulf?
Solskjaer: They were better than us, definitely. But there were chances, and listening to the coaching staff we were closer than we were years before … But they were exceptional last season, I have to accept that.
Q: When you look at City under Pep Guardiola, do you feel catching them is a challenge you can win?
Solskjaer: I think we have got to focus on ourselves. I don’t think I can look at Liverpool or City and think “They are doing it this way and we’ve got to do it that way.” We have got to focus on us and I believe in these players because they have shown me what they are capable of. They have also shown me some negative sides, which we have got to work on; better habits, get the consistency in training which will get consistency in the games and results. So, yeah, you look at those two clubs, [Jurgen] Klopp and Pep, and as I said about Jose and Louis, I have no problem saying good things about people. They are good coaches, good managers.
Solskjaer: That has been dealt with internally. I am old school, old fashioned. I am quite big on discipline, yeah. I am quite big on self-discipline and we can’t spoon feed all these players, they have got to do it themselves. Of course, I have had many, many years at this club and I have seen which players have been successful — they are strong characters. You have got to be a strong character to play here. [These players] have to make their own decisions, and in life as well.
Q: You’ve said during this tour that you would quite like a Bryan Robson in your team. He was known as a strong leader, do you think that is something that is missing?
Solskjaer: From the talks I’ve had with many managers and coaches from my generation, when we played, I think it’s a general society thing as well that there are less Robbos and Keanos [Roy Keane] around. It’s the same in Norway. We’re all too comfortable. Life is so comfortable. It’s easy now when you’re an academy player you make so much money — “Well I’ve made it.” And the parents live through their kids. I think that’s a general society thing and I said it of course stood next to Robbo and I’ve admired Robbo. I’ve heard Gary [Neville], Becks [David Beckham] all talk about Robbo. I played with Keano and I think any manager in the world would say I would love that type of leader. Look at City and [Vincent] Kompany. Who knows what will happen [now he has left the club]? Because he is a fantastic human being, player and leader so someone else has to step up and someone else has to step up for us.
Q: One of your big players is Paul Pogba — how confident are you that you can put this unsettled summer he’s had behind you and get him back on side for next season?
Solskjaer: I’ve said so many times about Paul that he’s a top, top boy and a great player and he’s never, ever been a problem. When we get him playing as he did when I came in, and if we get him playing like that again he will win you [the media] over as well even.
Q: Are there any circumstances where Pogba will be sold? What’s the situation now?
Solskjaer: I’ve got to be careful — I can’t dive into all these hypothetical questions — but we’ve not had offers. I can say the same about whichever player. If we don’t get an offer for a player we would have to pay them out for them not to be here, don’t we, and we haven’t had offers.
Q: Last season after speaking to [Pogba] you were convinced he wanted to be successful here, then he goes on holiday and says he wants a new challenge. Is that personally upsetting to you?
Solskjaer: No, I’ve not been upset by anything he’s said because we’ve had many conversations and I know exactly what Paul is thinking. I can give him a new challenge.
Q: Does Paul have the chance to be part of something big here?
Solskjaer: Many of these players haven’t felt the winning feeling at this club … Yes, David [De Gea] won the league, Ash [Young] has won the league and Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, they have won the league here. But it’s not been consistent. Jesse [Lingard], Marcus [Rashford], Paul, Andreas [Pereira] — the ones that have been in the academy when I was playing — when we went on that run early, some of them said “Wow we have never had this feeling before.” But for me, [Sir Alex Ferguson] would say “we need to win 10 straight games to win the league, that’s not much to ask, is it? Ten games in a row?” And it wasn’t. That is the feeling I had all the time, that we can win the next 10.
Solskjaer: Jimmy is young, he’s very young — only 18 — so you can’t expect too much from him but you can see he is going to be a top player. Andy [Pereira] I expect a lot more from, Scotty [McTominay] I expect a lot more from. Those two between them had maybe 15, 20 starts last season. You expect them to have at least 20 each this year, maybe even more. That’s maybe two players into one that can replace Ander [Herrera].
Q: If you sold Romelu Lukaku, is there a plan in place to bring someone else in or would you be happy with what you have?
Solskjaer: If we sell players we will have to replace them.
Q: What is your feeling on the technical director? Would an appointment have helped the recruitment process this summer?
Solskjaer: I have a direct line to [executive vice-chairman] Ed [Woodward], [head of corporate development] Matt [Judge] and [chief technical scout] Mick [Court]. We are quite close in that respect. If there is someone in between us, a technical director — call it whatever you like — I’m happy with that either way because it’s not going to be too big a difference. We do have our process on how we scout players now and how we see players but once in a while you have to act quickly.
Q: Recruitment has been a problem for the club for a number of years.
Solskjaer: It’s never a problem — a challenge.
Q: But compared to the players you have been able to bring in compared to the rivals you are trying to catch, does something need to change?
Solskjaer: That’s your opinion. I can only talk from my period. I wanted Aaron and Dan James. They were very high targets. Aaron was a top target. We can’t expect Dan to be David Beckham or Ryan Giggs straightaway but he will be a top player.
Q: Can you get Alexis Sanchez back to the player he was at Arsenal?
Solskjaer: I will have to help. I’ve just answered a question here and said you can’t spoon feed them. They’ve got to come in and grab their chances and Alexis is quality and he showed it in the Copa America. Then he got his injury. I don’t think it’s too bad so I’m hoping he will be available for maybe Kristiansund [30 July] or AC Milan [Aug. 3] so he will at least get some football before the season starts.
Q: Sanchez has had success elsewhere playing as a centre forward. Is that an option for you?
Solskjaer: The way we hope we are going to play, it doesn’t have to be a 6-foot-4-inch striker, no, so Alexis can be part of that forward line.
Q: But you are planning on having Sanchez here next season?
Solskjaer: At the moment, yes I am.