This is no dugout duel, says Sol­sk­jaer

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Premier League - By Mike Whal­ley

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

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