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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer interview: Manchester United manager on Pogba, Sanchez, spoon-fed players and his plans for the new season

James Ducker
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer arrives for a media conference - Getty Images AsiaPac

Sixteen minutes of the interview have elapsed before the questioning turns, inevitably, to what has become the elephant in the room for the Manchester United manager, namely the future of Paul Pogba.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has had several weeks now to properly digest Pogba’s public admission that he wants to leave Old Trafford and pursue a “new challenge” elsewhere, preferably at Real Madrid.

Having looked Solskjaer in the eye and told him he was committed to United only months earlier, Pogba’s declaration was, in truth, something of a slap in the face to his manager. And yet, if Solskjaer was hurt or disappointed by it, he is not showing it from his seat in a quiet corner of the plush Crown Towers resort in Perth, where United’s squad are being worked harder than they have been for several summers on the first leg of their pre-season tour.

No visible outpourings of anger or resentment, just a clear message to his wantaway star midfielder that he can still find everything he is looking for at United, even if one imagines Pogba is having a hard time looking past last season’s league table, which shows a 32-point chasm to champions Manchester City.

“I’ve not been upset by anything he’s said because we’ve had many conversations and I know exactly what Paul is thinking,” Solskjaer said. “I can give him a new challenge.

Paul Pogba (left) training with Manchester United Credit: getty images

“I’ve said many times about Paul that he’s a top, top boy and a great player and he’s never, ever been a problem. If we get him playing again like he did when I came in, he will win you over.”

For a young manager thrust into a job that proved too much even for two titans of the trade, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho - and chewed up and spat out the experienced figure of David Moyes - Solskjaer does a good line in diplomacy.

The upbeat mood in training in Perth, where Solskjaer’s men face old rivals Leeds United at the Optus Stadium on Wednesday before departing for Singapore and thereafter Shanghai, is certainly far removed from the toxicity of last summer’s tour, when Mourinho effectively waged war on his own club. Behind the glossy veneer, though, and a tanned, relaxed Solskjaer happily reminiscing about scoring twice in a 4-3 win over Leeds in 2002 and “seeing David Beckham and Ian Harte having the slowest ever race for a 50-yard ball from Paul Scholes”, there are troubles.

Pogba is the obvious one, and while Solskjaer keeps reiterating that United have had “no offers” for their record £89 million signing and do not need to sell anyone, there remains the feeling that the club would consider cashing in if Real, or Juventus, got close to their £160m valuation. The same applies to Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku, who has his sights set firmly on a move to Inter Milan, and Alexis Sanchez.

Romelu Lukaku trains with Manchester United but wants a move to Inter Milan Credit: epa

Would Lukaku need replacing? “If we sell players we will have to replace them,” Solskjaer said. Too right. Regardless of whether Lukaku is deemed to be an awkward fit for a club trying to reconnect with its identity and roots through free-flowing, attacking football, he has been United’s best guarantee of goals. As for Sanchez, Solskjaer’s response when asked if he expected the Chile striker to still be a United player come the start of the season hardly constituted an unequivocal show of faith. “At the moment, yes I am,” the manager said, although given Sanchez’s calamitous form since he arrived 18 months ago - five goals in 45 appearances, numerous injuries and some truly wretched performances - it should come as no surprise that United are open to offers.

Whether there are any takers for a man earning £500,000 a week with bonuses is another matter. Solskjaer considered his answer carefully when asked if he can see Sanchez - currently on holiday after his involvement in the Copa America - ever getting back to his best. “I will have to help,” he said. “But you can’t spoon feed them. They’ve got to come in and grab their chances. Alexis is quality and he showed it in Copa America. Then he got his injury. I don’t think it’s too bad so I’m hoping he will be available for maybe Kristiansund [on July 30] or AC Milan [four days later] so he will at least get some football before the season starts.”

Alexis Sanchez is currently on holiday after his involvement in the Copa America Credit: getty images

The subject of not having to “spoon feed” players had been raised earlier by Solskjaer in discussion about the lewd Snapchat video Jesse Lingard filmed from inside a luxury suite on holiday in Miami. Now that was something that did grate with Solskjaer and the United and England forward has been reprimanded for it. “That has been dealt with internally,” Solskjaer explained, confident there will be no repeat. “I am old school, old fashioned, quite big on discipline.

“I am quite big on self discipline and I can’t spoon feed all these players. They have got to do it themselves. Of course, I have had many, many years at this club and I have seen which players have been successful and those characters. You have got to be a strong character to play here. It is not like I can tell them to pass from A to B to C to D. They have to make their own decisions, and in life as well.”

Speaking at a fans’ event in Perth, Solskjaer said he needed a Bryan Robson-style leader in the dressing room but fears there are too few of his kind left in football and, interestingly, wonders what sort of impact the loss of Vincent Kompany - who is cut from that mould - will have on Manchester City.

“There are less Robbos and Keanos [Roy Keane] around,” he said. “We’re all too comfortable. It’s easy now when you’re an academy player you make so much money. ‘Well, I’ve made it’. And the parents live through their kids.

“I’ve heard Gary [Neville], Becks, all of them talk about Robbo. I played with Keano. I think any manager in the world would say, ‘I would love to have one who is that type of leader’. Look at City, Kompany. Who knows what will happen? Because he was a fantastic human being, player and leader so someone else has to step up. And someone else has to step up for us.”

But who will that be? Pogba? No-one can be certain he will still be a United player come Aug 9 while the club’s transfer activity to date has been modest and so far focused on young British talents, such as Daniel James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who can be developed. It may surprise some fans to hear Solskjaer admit he is not a hands-on coach like his predecessors at United and leaves the majority of the specific coaching work to his trusted staff, Kieran McKenna, Michael Carrick, Mike Phelan and Mark Dempsey, who has returned to Manchester after collapsing last week. “I’ve admired Jose, Louis and David,” he said. “We’re all different. I think they were more on the pitch, really on the pitch. That type of coach. I’ve got some great coaches around me that will do most of the coaching work. We’ve all got different management styles.”

United have yet to appoint a technical director to assist the recruitment process, as was expected by now. But Solskjaer seems happy with the current set-up overseen by executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, Matt Judge, the head of corporate development who negotiates transfers, and the technical chief scout, Mick Court, giving the impression he can take or leave such an appointment.

Coach Michael Carrick (left), coach Kieran McKenna (centre) and Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (right) Credit: getty images

Court’s elevated status should not be overlooked either - the analyst is highly influential behind the scenes. “I have a direct line to Ed, Matt and Mick. We are quite close in that respect,” Solskjaer said. “If there is someone in between us - a technical director, call it whatever you like - I’m happy with that either way because it’s not going to be too big a difference because we do have our process on how we scout players now but, once in a while, you have to act quickly.”

Whether a technical director working within a collegiate system would improve United in recruitment terms remains to be seen. Solskjaer took exception to the suggestion recruitment has been a problem for the club for several years, even if the £700m or so spent on players and the string of disappointing league positions since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013 points towards a significant issue.

Compare United’s best signings over the past decade to those of their rivals and it is a sorry picture. “That’s your opinion. It’s never a problem - a challenge,” Solskjaer said. “I can only talk from my period. I wanted Aaron and Dan James. Aaron was, for me, the top target. We can’t expect Dan to be David Beckham or Ryan Giggs straightaway but he will be a top player. He’s not a £70m player, no, but he’ll be worth it.”

The “ruthless” cull Solskjaer had threatened in the wake of a bruising Champions League exit to Barcelona in April has yet to materialise, with supporters disheartened to see players they expected to be shown the door net new contracts, but the manager suggested he was prepared to give second chances to some while recognising the complexities of an inflated transfer markets.

Solskjaer wants Harry Maguire but United are so far unwilling to meet Leicester’s £90m valuation of the England centre-half. In some areas, he plans to improvise. Scott McTominay and Andreas Pereira, for example, are likely to be tasked with filling the hole left by Ander Herrera’s departure for Paris St-Germain. “You expect them to have at least 20 starts each this season, maybe even more. That’s maybe two players into one that can replace Ander,” Solskjaer said. Goalkeeper David De Gea is also set to sign a new contract once the club return from their tour in another boost.

The Europa League may be prioritised over the FA Cup and League Cup as well as being used as a breeding ground for his young players, even if Solskjaer was adamant he would not be discarding any competition. “I think that it [the Europa League] will be a chance for some of the young ones, definitely,” he said. “Then again, it’s a great chance of qualifying for the Champions League for next season, so I think you’ll see quite a few of the young ’uns... but we need to blood them in the right tournament and it depends on who you play, on the stage of the tournament.”

In the final weeks of last season, Solskjaer played down the prospect of a title push next term but, while he is not promising an instant fix and hopes for patience, he is optimistic that United’s results and football will improve as he puts the emphasis on pressing from the front, something evident against Perth Glory last Saturday, even if the true tests are to come.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer talks to the media Credit: epa

United have certainly been made to work hard since returning for pre-season, with Solskjaer eager to ensure there is no repeat of the alarming drop-off at the end of last term, when they won just two of their final 10 games following his permanent appointment on March 28 after a run of 14 victories from his first 19 matches in temporary charge.

“You expected them to come back with that little bit of grit,” he said. “It’s still build-up time, time to build a foundation, and we needed it, because the stats have shown we haven’t been up there, but there’s been a big improvement. Like Scott said, they haven’t had sessions like this the last few pre-seasons.

“It did feel like [we were a long way behind City and Liverpool] towards the end of last season but it didn’t feel like it in the beginning when I came in.

“I am always an optimist. Let’s see how we start off and how close we get this season. A successful season is if we win a trophy at this club. With these players, if we get the consistency and get them margins, hopefully we can get David [De Gea’s contract] over the line and signed and we might be contenders, who knows?

“We have a clear aim and we want to look a certain way. We know it’s going to take time. It might not be a transformation like [clicks fingers] ‘Wow, that’s a new team’, but I think most of us saw the intention on Saturday.”