This is no dugout duel, says Solskjaer
Ask Ole Gunnar Solskjaer if today’s match at Wembley is effectively an audition for the role of Manchester United’s next permanent manager, and he will try to steer your focus in another direction.
To the outside observer, a meeting between Solskjaer and Tottenham head coach Mauricio Pochettino may offer a significant clue as to who will be in charge at Old Trafford next season. The Norwegian is doing all he cannot to look at it that way.
“No. It’s not about me at all,” caretaker Solskjaer said. “It should always be about the players, because it’s not about me. It’s not about him.
“We don’t kick a ball at all. They kick a ball. Of course, we might make a decision here or there, but it’s down to the players to perform and I’m sure my boys are ready.”
In the three and a half weeks since returning to United to replace the sacked Jose Mourinho, Solskjaer has done everything asked of him. Five matches have brought five victories, the team are playing more attractive football, and look fitter and happier.
Solskjaer, whose 126 goals in 11 years for United include arguably the most memorable Champions League winner of all time, has made no secret of the fact that he would love to manage the club beyond the summer, when his loan from Molde ends.
Pochettino is widely considered the favourite to get the job full-time, and Solskjaer said at a press conference on Thursday that “the speculation is there for a reason”, acknowledging the fine job that the Argentine has done since joining Spurs in 2014.
In order to strengthen his own chances of managing United next season, Solskjaer has focused on two areas: improving the players’ fitness levels and on building connections with his squad.
A warm-weather training trip to Dubai this week was designed to make progress on both fronts; the interim manager put his players through a series of rigorous training exercises and taking the chance to speak to them on a one-to-one basis.
Solskjaer compared the fitness work done during the trip to the “mini preseason” he and his United team-mates went through when Sir Alex Ferguson was manager. In discussing it, the Norwegian was careful not to criticise the training sessions United did under Mourinho, although the players have looked in better shape over the past few weeks.
“We always used to do that with the boss [Ferguson] as well, come January,” Solskjaer said. “We had a mini preseason and I think it’s important, when you’ve got a full week, that you do a proper training week.
“But looking at the stats in the five games since I came in, they’ve gone up. We out-sprint teams. We’ve produced higher intensity than the opposition in every single one of them. I think that’s one of the best compliments you can get as a coach, when the other manager says, ‘Your boys worked hard.’ Because if my boys work as hard as this, it will take a lot to beat us.”
Solskjaer hopes his one-to-one chats will help to get the best out of his squad, most notably Alexis Sanchez, who has struggled for form and fitness since arriving from Arsenal last January.
Sanchez, who is battling a hamstring injury, has scored just four times for United – but Solskjaer is hoping that he and his assistant manager Mike Phelan can help the Chile forward make a fresh start.
Solskjaer said: “Alexis has got high standards for himself. You demand a lot from yourself, and when it doesn’t work, as it clearly hasn’t, and he’s had some injuries, then it’s difficult to suddenly put that confidence on.
“It’s a fresh start for him with me and Mick coming in. It’s a new lease of life, maybe. Hopefully we can see the best of him, because he is a top, top player.”
‘It should always be about the players because it is not about me and him’
Not an audition: Manchester United have won all five matches with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in charge