Solskjær talks up Manchester United’s title hopes and knows pressure is on

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Ole Gunnar Solskjær is well used to questions about titles and transfers, but the Manchester United manager is still learning the art of navigating sensitive queries about a hot topic: vaccine hesitancy.

Whereas Solskjær has no qualms about declaring United can win the Premier League this season, he is more ambivalent when it comes to discussing those members of his squad who remain reluctant to be inoculated against Covid.

Related: No fanfare: Raphaël Varane’s Manchester United arrival is typically low-key | Sid Lowe

It is an increasingly thorny issue in football circles with certain players fearing the injections could affect their careers adversely.

“Some here are already fully vaccinated, others are not so sure,” says Solskjær, who signed a three-year contract extension last month. “We’re going to have a bigger session [educating the squad about the vaccine]. It’s important everyone understands what it’s about.”

Solskjær knows that without blanket immunisations the potential for chaos will be greater and he sounds desperate to escape the need for restrictive Covid secure squad bubbles.

United had a friendly against Preston cancelled when nine of the Norwegian’s players registered positive lateral flow tests. “Then, next day, when we did a proper PCR test, they were all negative,” he says. “If that happened before a league game it would be a problem.

“It’s cost us preparation time; we had a couple of days away from the training ground.

“Footballers have been privileged – when the rest of the world has been closed we’ve been able to play but now we have to be really careful. It’s a sacrifice we’ve got to make to play football. It’s a difficult situation because players’ lives are not normal.”

Among the most abnormal aspects is the enduring lack of interaction with fans. “Signing autographs for the kids, taking pictures with them, we want to do all that but we can’t,” says Solskjær. “That’s hard. We want to engage but we can’t. It’s difficult.”

The same goes for the 48-year-old’s most pressing impending challenge: ending the club’s four-year trophy drought. The arrivals of the England winger Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund and the France defender Raphaël Varane from Real Madrid should help but a good start is imperative.

“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,” Solskjær says.

Given United finished second and reached last season’s Europa League final are they now sufficiently robust to secure Premier League and/or Champions League glory? “I’d rather be an optimist and be wrong than a pessimist and be right,” says Solskjær. “Of course these boys can, with a maximum effort and maximum sacrifice.

“It feels like this season coming up is one of the strongest Premier League seasons. It’s been City and Liverpool fighting it out for a while but us and Chelsea have spent well and should look at ourselves as potential challengers.”

Ole Gunnar Solskjær enjoys January’s FA Cup win over Liverpool, one of the teams he expects to contend for the title.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær enjoys January’s FA Cup win over Liverpool, one of the teams he expects to contend for the title. Photograph: Martin Rickett/Reuters

He is a firm believer in the adage about their being no “I” in team. “We’re a family here – there’s no one bigger than the team and that’s important for me,” he says. “The only place these boys can be normal is when they play football. When 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 at this club under Sir Alex [Ferguson]. We all stuck together and had one cause only.”

That mission, the accumulation of trophies, remains ongoing. “There’s always pressure to win the league and to win trophies,” says Solskjær. “It doesn’t matter if you have a 10-year contract; if you don’t do well, you go.

“You feel under pressure all the time. It’s not just about clinging on to your job, it’s about the responsibility in my hands. We’ve got millions of fans.”

Goalkeeping excellence is a common denominator between trophy-winning teams but Solskjær remains opaque about the competing strengths of David de Gea and Dean Henderson and whether one may leave on loan. “It’s about healthy competition,” he says. “If you’re too comfortable you don’t get the best out of yourself but it has to be healthy for the team. If it’s toxic, it’s energy sapping. Last year was a new situation for David and Dean. Let’s see how it works out.”

David de Gea (left) and Dean Henderson pictured in January. Solskjær says competition must not become ‘toxic’.
David de Gea (left) and Dean Henderson pictured in January. Solskjær says competition must not become ‘toxic’. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/PA

Paul Pogba’s future seems slightly clearer. It appears the France midfielder may be staying. “Paul’s always such a positive boy,” says Solskjær. “The talks I’ve had with him have all been positive.”

Significantly, Solskjær’s handling of the sometimes vexingly high-maintenance Pogba appears as intelligent as his recruitment of the Uruguay striker Edinson Cavani has proved prescient. “We’ve made the players more robust and ready to face the challenges of being a Manchester United player,” he says.

“That’s not the same as playing in any other team. Everyone knows the demands and expectations are higher. There’s so many good players out there but some don’t handle the pressure. It’s about getting the right characters. We proved that last year with Edinson. Bringing Edi in was so important and showed many others the way.

“You have to 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 isn’t for me.’ You have to handle the ups and downs. You’ve got to trust and believe in yourself without showing off. I like arrogance and confidence on the pitch but I don’t like arrogance off it.”

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