– The wind was a bit cold and strong, Solskjær says wearing a white training top during the video interview with VG on Friday afternoon.
The weather forecast from the Carrington training ground is no longer a good image of how things are going in one of the world’s biggest football clubs.
Even though Manchester United still have not won the league since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, and although they were knocked out of the Champions League in December, the last months have showed signs of promise: After years of unstable results and chaos, with four changes of manager and table finishes from two to seven, Manchester United seem to be approaching some sort of consistency.
– For a long time, one had the feeling that a crisis was always around the next corner at Manchester United. Now it does not feel that way anymore, which has to be considered an accomplishment in itself. Now you seem closer to a new contract than anything else. Do you expect talks about that in the summer, when you have one year left of your current deal?
– I have not thought about that, and we have not discussed it at all. I am just focusing on doing my job and, as you say, part of the job is to stabilize things. We have a job to do in order to find consistency on the pitch. Outside the pitch it is still a crisis if you lose a game. If you concede a goal in stoppage time against Everton, it still creates big headlines. That can happen in football. But on the inside it is more stable. We feel like we are on our way towards what we sat down and discussed, what we planned, Solskjær tells VG.
Reports in the English press have just started to indicate that Manchester United have the intention of starting talks with Solskjær about a contract renewal in the summer – as long as the club qualifies for the Champions League.
They are currently on track: «The red devils» are second in the Premier League with a six point advantage to fourth-placed Liverpool.
Chaotic opening months
But there have not only been happy days since Solskjær took over the club of his dreams, first on a temporary basis from December 19th 2018, then permanently from March 28th 2019.
He has seemed to be close to the edge of the cliff at several occasions: After the abysmal end to the 2018/19 season; after the 0–1 loss against Newcastle in October 2019; after the 0–2 loss at home to Burnley in January 2020; or after the Champions League elimination against RB Leipzig in December.
Every time, Solskjær has bounced back spectacularly – and silenced the talks of a managerial change.
– What do they bring out in you, these moments where you stand with your back against the wall?
– I would have to look closer at that, but no one likes to lose, no one likes to be pushed into a corner. If the performances have not been good enough, we do something about it on the pitch and in our preparations. We wake each other up. But I do not feel like there have been as many crises as everyone else have been talking about.
– We took a choice two years ago that there were a lot of things to do. We had to replace a lot of things. We have been very aware that there would be tough times on the road. As responsible for these decisions, sitting on top, we just have to be mentally strong. And I have to say: The club’s senior management has been very strong, they have stood rock solid behind the direction we staked out.
– Did you think it was going to be harder to keep their confidence when you see how ruthless the football industry is, or are you not surprised?
– We have had open and honest discussions: «If we do this, then it means that …» Those discussions have been honest enough for us to know that we had to make some tough decisions: Give youth a chance, give players with other qualities a chance, play in a different way, give the coaches enough time to implement the playing style and playing patterns.
Solskjær describes the state of the club he took over in the following way:
− Especially the first six months, it was almost from game to game what we were going to do. Last year and this year, on the other hand, we have been more stable in team selection and playing style.
– If you paint your house, you need to use primer
His critics will remark that even though Solskjær hits back when the going gets tough, his team also deceives in the big games: There have already been four semi-final losses under Solskjær, in addition to when they were eliminated from the Champions League by RB Leipzig.
– What do you need in order to go from «almost» to reach the same level as the very best?
– If you paint your house, you need to use primer first, then you paint it layer by layer, and in the end you have finished painting it. That is how we have had to think as well. This has to go step by step but we know what color we will end up with.
That may have been his point when he recently said that his team «should not be considered a title candidate». The quote was criticized by former Liverpool and Tottenham player Jamie Redknapp, who thinks it was too defensive.
– I know there has been a lot of critics and discussions on different things. But if I choose a direction in the first place, my self-belief is big enough not to wobble too much. If you mix too many colors, it is going to turn out wrong in the end, says Solskjær the painter.
– We have stood pretty steeply. But according to people, we suddenly became a much better team this year than what we had looked like, he laughs.
– I have always felt that we just needed small adjustments and a new team. I am not going to say that I know better than others, but it was – and is – my job to make us a better team and a better club. And I do that in what I think is the best way and according to my knowledge and values.
– I am not the one leading all the sessions
But what are those values exactly? How do you best describe the Norwegian compared to the clear characters he competes against in the Premier League?
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola is the innovative tactician. The mastermind. Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp is the charismatic motivator. The showman. And Tottenham manager José Mourinho is the cynical winner, the ruthless badass.
– Who are you?
– I am me. I am not any of them.
– We all have our own ways of leading a club and a team. I have my way to do it. I have never hidden that I am not the one who is on the training pitch leading all the sessions. I am more of a manager. I have had good coaches with me and fantastic staff around me. I have always been dependent on good coaches as well as patience in the club and that we believe in what we have agreed, Solskjær says before concluding:
– How would you describe me? It is up to you. I do not describe myself often. I am myself.
– No matter how big the storm has been on the outside, there has never seemed to be an internal storm at Manchester United during your time. From the outside it can seem like one of your key success factors is that you always manage to keep the whole squad happy and on board.
The suggestion seems to ignite Solskjær. It is obviously a topic he loves to talk about:
– We work with human beings. I love to work with people and try to get the best out of people and every single player. I like to treat everyone equally. Everyone has to be treated differently, but everyone has to be treated with the same amount of respect and value. Everyone is worth the same in a squad. Some players can make headlines, win awards and be selected in the team of the year or stuff like that. But for us to have success as a team, everyone needs to contribute in varying degree. Some play more, some play less.
He compares it to his own career as a player:
– In my last season I hoped to come in and perhaps play 20 minutes every game. My aim was to be the best in the world at playing 20 minutes. It made me feel like that was my contribution in order to provide six, seven, eight or nine more points to the team over the course of a season. As a super sub, as I often was called, I contributed to us finishing as league winners instead of second.
He uses this approach as a manager when motivating players who do not get as many minutes as they would have preferred:
– I try to make everyone in my squad understand that they are making a contribution in their own way. Then you have certain people who want to be the big fish in a small pond. Then it may be time to leave. This is a big pond but there is not only big fish in it.
– Many people should be protected from themselves
Compared to his more uninhibited rivals, Solskjær has for the time being held a lower profile in his external communication and his behavior on the touchline. Positive in bad times, balanced in good times.
– Mourinho, Guardiola and Klopp are at times very outspoken, can belittle a reporter or that type of thing, while you have mostly been calm no matter how things are going. Is that just your personality or will we see a «crazier» version of you in the future?
– I have been in this game for a long time, since I moved back to Kristiansund and took over Molde in January 2011, ten years ago. I do not think I am going to change very much. I do not think I was so much up and down then either, Solskjær says before sending what can be interpreted as a dig towards certain managers in the Premier League circus:
– It is important to take one or to steps back and breathe calmly if you feel like saying something you might regret later. Many people should be protected from themselves and rather get a little minute to calm down. There are some things you can say in the heat of the moment that are not especially constructive.
– I follow Haaland
The mandatory Erling Braut Haaland question is squeezed in to conclude the interview. Even though Manchester United do not want to add fuel to the fire when it comes to rumors about potential star signings, Solskjær does not dodge the following question:
– Do you feel that Manchester United can now compete for Haaland’s signature with clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus and Manchester City – and do you have an advantage because you are who you are and you have the relationship you have?
– It is clear that …
– Erling is going to have a fantastic career. I follow Erling. I have always said that. Was it 18 months we had together or something like that? Almost two years, perhaps. A fantastic time. He will surely have a super career both for Norway and his club. He is doing incredibly well for Dortmund. We will see where he ends up. As a Norwegian and someone who has worked with him, it is of course great that he is doing so well, Solskjær starts.
He was Molde manager in the summer of 2018 when Haaland broke through and truly introduced himself for the best clubs in the world.
Before July 1st 2018 the then 17-year-old had only scored two goals in 12 league games. He had either been on the bench or out of the squad in the last four games. So, the day before an away game against Brann, Solskjær had a meeting with him.
– I reckon Erling remembers when we satt at Lubbenes (Molde’s training ground) the day before the Brann game. I feel like that was an important day for Molde, for him and for our relationship, Solskjær says with a clever smile.
The rest is history. Haaland scored four goals in 21 minutes at Brann Stadion. Having scored only two in the 12 first league games, he concluded the season scoring 10 goals and delivering four assists in the following 13.
Then he became a RB Salzburg player, then he made Champions League his own playground, then Solskjær tried to bring him to Manchester United, but Haaland chose Borussia Dortmund.
It has proved to be a successful choice: 39 goals and nine assists in 41 games so far.
According to the football observatory CIES, Haaland is now the world’s second most valuable player: 152 million euro – only beaten by Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford.
– We are going to do what we can to become a better team, and he will do what he can to become a better player. Where he ends up? I do not want to say anything else. I wish him all the best. What choice he makes is up to him, Solskjær says.
– At least you have shown that you can push the right buttons on him, because everything took off after your chat …
– He had a very bad spell before that. I am sure he remembers that. It is a great pleasure following him. He will have a long, long, long career that is going to surpass most of what any Norwegian player has done.