Ole Gunnar Solskjaer sat down for the traditional Manchester United Christmas lunch in the Carrington canteen on Tuesday and has every reason to be filled with festive cheer this year. His team are third in the Premier League, five points behind leaders Liverpool with a game in hand, after a run of six wins from their last seven games.
The Norwegian manager has had to deal with the setback of an early Champions League exit, but has a Carabao Cup quarterfinal with Everton, plus the start of their FA Cup campaign in the new year, to keep their bid for silverware alive.
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On Boxing Day, Manchester United face a massive Premier League clash with second-placed Leicester City and victory at the King Power Stadium — where they secured Champions League football on the final day of last season — would cement their title credentials ahead of a meeting with Liverpool at Anfield in January.
There is marked improvement from this time last year, when Solskjaer’s team headed into Christmas eighth in the table, a mammoth 24 points behind Liverpool and battling to stay in the race for the top four. The 47-year-old celebrated two years in the Old Trafford hotseat on Saturday and ahead of Wednesday’s trip to Goodison Park — watch LIVE on ESPN+, 3 p.m. ET — Solskjaer sat down with ESPN to reflect on his reign so far, his targets for the next two years and the vital run of fixtures facing his players over Christmas and new year.
Q: Your team is third in the Premier League and has six wins from the last seven Premier League games. The mood around the club must be good heading into Christmas this year?
A: Yeah, I think so. It’s so much easier, of course, when you get results. We’ve been working on the spirit and the personalities around the place anyway, and the culture is really good. Of course it helps the mood when you’re getting good results.
Q: You’ve got a Carabao Cup quarterfinal against Everton on Wednesday. How important is getting that first trophy for a squad that’s still very young?
A: It’s always an important step for any team or any player to win a trophy. That’s something we’re aiming for. We’ve got make changes [for the Everton game] and we’ve got to freshen it up, but the team will be a fresh one that I think can give Everton some problems.
Q: You were part of the squad that won the League Cup in 2006 and two years later, the same group of players won the Champions League — is that the kind of springboard this competition can provide?
A: When you get to a final — if you do — you have a chance to taste that winning feeling. But the League Cup is also, and always has been, a chance for the players who’ve not really played the past few league games to get more game time. It’s a big one for the squad to feel that you’re valued if you’re maybe not playing every single league game.
Q: Marcus Rashford says that this team are “so close” to winning trophies. Do you get the same feeling from this squad?
A: We were certainly one step away from a final last season, and we finished the season really strongly in the league as well. We were disappointed that we didn’t get to a final or lift a trophy, but that’s the next step for these players now.
I think everyone felt how close we were and the mood, the spirit and the culture has improved since then. And the belief. Definitely the belief has grown, because we know we’ve got players — Marcus [Rashford], Anthony [Martial], Mason [Greenwood] — they’ve not really been on fire this season and when we get them scoring more goals, I’m sure we’ll look more of a threat.
Q: Where does that belief come from, belief perhaps that wasn’t there this time last year?
A: Our form and what we’ve done in 2020 does that. They see that we’re more consistent, and in 2020 there aren’t too many teams that have taken more points than us. Performances are the main thing. You have to get performances and results to get that belief.
Q: You’ve just celebrated two years in charge at Old Trafford. What are your priorities for the next two years?
A: To get to a first final and to get the first trophy is going to be massive, and to further stamp the playing style and the DNA into the players. We’ve bought a few very good players that have been at the club less than a year, and they’ve made us stronger, but they need to get used to the Man United style of play — also, the way of life.
When you work for Man United and when you play for Man United, it takes over your life. It’s not just one of the clubs in the world; it’s the biggest in the world. There is more interest, more criticism and more praise, so you’ve got to find a balance about how you can live your life as a Man United player.
Q: Is that why you’ve been so careful with the players you have brought to the club?
A: I think so. You can easily get carried away with success or setbacks. You need to be stable. You can’t be too emotional at Man United. I was part of a dressing room that was exceptional. We never, ever, accepted 99%. It was just, you either come in and you give everything you’ve got, or you’re out. I want to get there. It’s not as easy or as quick as that, but we’re getting there.
Q: You’ve spoken a lot about changing the mentality and the playing style at Man United, but how big a challenge has that been over the past two years?
A: A lot of it comes down to recruitment. You’ve got to be very, very sure that they’re the right people, that they’re hungry enough to learn and humble enough to learn. They come from different backgrounds and they’re used to different playing styles, but we have always had in the core of our play quick, attacking football. You have to be humble enough to know that you have to work hard.
The [6-2 win] against Leeds set new standards for me. The players have shown that they are capable of matching the fittest teams in Europe, and that’s a great sign for me.
Steve Nicol believes winning a trophy would help Manchester United take the next step in their progression.
Q: There has been a lot of speculation surrounding the future of Paul Pogba, but do you still hope he might decide Man United is the best place for him to win trophies?
A: There’s always a demand at Man United to win trophies, and the more you win trophies, the more players are going to want to play for us. Then, there’s a higher standard you’ve got to set yourself. It’s a demand for the players; it’s a challenge for the players that we want them to improve and get better and better.
Paul has been here for a while, and of course he wants to win more trophies. He’s got a very, very good attitude to the training and his football. He loves football and he’s ambitious. He wants to have success like most of the others that are in the squad. We’re not all the same, but I would say that this squad has impressed me with their attitude, spirit and the way they go about their work. It’s down to us to win trophies, and then let’s see who will be part of the team going forward.
Q: You’ve put yourself in the title race, but how important is the next run of fixtures, starting with Everton in the Carabao Cup and ending with the trip to Liverpool on Jan. 17?
A: It’s a massive run. It’s very important that we do all the right things: recovery, preparation and pick the right team, rotate players. You don’t rest them because I don’t think it’s fair to call it “rest” when you’ve got full internationals and top players coming into the team. That’s part of being at Man United. You are a good player, you are an international and you’re available when called upon.
It won’t be like the lockdown period after the restart when we had the same team for six, seven, eight games. No chance. I’ll make changes.