Football News

Five things learned as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer makes Man Utd revelations

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 12:30, 6 March 2024

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer became Manchester United’s fourth permanent head coach following the departure of legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson.

The club icon, who secured their second European Cup in 1999, succeeded José Mourinho on an interim basis and started well.

He won his opening eight matches on the bounce, which included big wins over Cardiff City (1-5) and Bournemouth (4-1), as well as an FA Cup fourth-round triumph away to Arsenal (1-3).

A draw at home to Burnley was soon followed by a Champions League round of 16 first-leg defeat against Paris Saint-Germain at Old Trafford. However, the Red Devils would stunningly turn the tie around in the French capital to book a quarter-final date with Barcelona.

Solskjaer’s position was soon upgraded, but the Manchester-based club would ultimately struggle before parting ways. The native of Kristiansund oversaw 168 matches across caretaker and permanent roles, winning 92 times while suffering 41 losses.

Now, between jobs, Solskjaer is looking to get back in the saddle. He recently sat down with former Man Utd teammates Gary Neville and Roy Keane on their Stick to Football podcast, revealing some interesting revelations. Here are five things we learned.

1. Reluctant leaders

Among the many tidbits from Solskjaer’s interview, his revelation that certain players were reluctant to captain at certain times left Neville, Keane—two former Man Utd skippers—and their co-hosts Jill Scott, Ian Wright, and Jamie Carragher speechless. Ashley Young and Harry Maguire were his full-time skippers, but the pair understandably spent time on the sidelines, meaning others needed to step up.

A combination of the responsibility of leading this grandiose institution and the intense spotlight that comes with it put some off undertaking this particular task; those individuals wouldn’t let him know it to his face, instead using intermediates to let him know, which rubbed Solskjaer up the wrong way.

“No one said ‘No’ to being the club captain; it was just for certain games,” he revealed. Solskjaer was then asked if players specifically told him they did not want the armband for particular matches. “Yes, but they didn’t want to say it themselves,” he added. “They had other people come up to me and say it. It was disappointing. It’s a different generation, Gen Z. It’s petty and shows a lack of ambition.”

Neville pushed back on the “petty” comment, feeling it’s far more complex. “It makes me feel worried for them [the players] in the sense that, what state of mind are they in to actually turn down one of the greatest accolades you could have? I don’t think of it as weak; they must be in a bad place to be shrinking [from the responsibility],” he said.

Key stat: Only Victor Lindelöf (129) played more for Man Utd than Harry Maguire (121) under Solskjaer.

2. The return of the Prodigal Son

Solskjaer conceded it felt right at the moment but knew risks were attached. Ronaldo’s age meant he brought a degree of experience that could benefit the younger members of United’s playing staff.

However, on the field, certain aspects would need to change to accommodate the elder statesmen; this meant negatively altering their shape and playing style. Even so, when signing the five-time Ballon d’Or winner, he agreed to rest once every four games, though he reneged, much to Solskjaer’s frustration.

“We started straight away thinking how we are going to press and change the little tweaks,” he said.

“Cristiano is different to Antony Martial who was up front, or whether we would play Mason [Greenwood] or Marcus [Rashford] up front. Edinson Cavani was the one that suffered the most when Cristiano came in — we’d played and got Edinson into a certain way of understanding the way we played.

“With the ball, with him on the team, it was no problem. Without him [pressing], we had to change a little bit the different roles we’d gotten used to. We were one of the highest-pressing teams before [Ronaldo joined]. We let Dan James go when Cristiano came in, and they’re two different types of players. It was the right decision to make for me—it didn’t turn out to be the right one.”

Key stat: Cristiano Ronaldo scored nine times across 12 appearances under Solskjær.

3. We talk about Bruno

As touched upon, Maguire ultimately became Man Utd captain under Solskjaer, though since his departure successor Erik ten Hag stripped the England international, subsequently handing the armband to Bruno Fernandes, who joined United while the Norwegian tactician was at the helm. Solskjaer, while not denying Fernandes’ leadership qualities, feels his emotions get the better of him.

“I knew Bruno Fernandes had captain qualities when I was manager at Manchester United,” he said. “He’s got the personality and quality – but he knows and I’ve told him – that he’s too passionate at times and he loses a bit of control. I loved Harry Maguire as a captain, he was the leader in that group for me when I was at the club.”

Key stat: Only Marcus Rashford (89) was involved in more goals than Bruno Fernandes (79) under Solskjaer.

4. System Swap

A pair of home defeats to rivals Liverpool and Manchester City began the end of Solskjaer’s reign. Jurgen Klopp’s men ran out 5-0 winners, but the following Premier League game saw Man Utd register a 3-0 success over Tottenham on the road. That was immediately followed by losing 2-0 to City before a 4-1 defeat at Watford ended this particular chapter.

Not renowned for his tactical innovations, Solskjaer fielded a 4-2-3-1 against Liverpool and 3-5-2 in the City game; reflecting back now, he told Neville and company he’d swap those formations around, but what irritated him more was a lack of work rate in those setbacks.

“The thing was, the players also felt, and maybe wrongly so, thought, we are a better team than just defending,” he said.

“There were players whose main strength was counterattacking and running and digging in – to be honest. And in previous years, you had players like Andreas Pereira, Dan James, Jesse Lingard, players that could run all day for you. And it’s easy to set up a team and beat City away from home.

“At Manchester United you have a responsibility as well for the fans to enjoy the game. Don’t just go and get a result.’

He added: “That’s exactly what I was thinking [to take the next step and be the dominant team].

“I can’t be, because there’s a chance you’re going to lose anyway, those two Liverpool and [Manchester] City – two of the best teams in the world in the last four or five years. Absolutely top teams. There’s a chance you’re going to lose anyway – if you lose without having a go, it’s like, ‘What’s the point?’”

Key stat: Only Jürgen Klopp (12) and José Mourinho (7) have beaten Pep Guardiola on more occasions than Solskjaer (4).

5. Transfer regrets

You can’t always get what you want, and Solksjaer was no different as Man Utd boss. In the podcast, Declan Rice, now thriving in north London with Arsenal, was brought up as someone he was keen to bring in.

It’s well documented that his compatriot Erling Haaland was someone the record 20-time English champions were considering. Still, Solksjaer revealed a release clause in his Red Bull Salzburg they could have activated.

“I had him [Haaland] in Molde, for two seasons,” he began.

“The summer before I got here, I rang the club and said, ‘You’ve got to sign this boy. He’ll be top class’.

“That was June, July 2018, and they said no. They had enough reports on players. Then I became the caretaker manager, and we’d sold Haaland to RB Salzburg.

“I tell the club straight away to buy him while he has a release clause. We knew that then, and no one else would’ve paid the money – €20m, it would’ve been a bargain.

“It was the club’s decision to not go for it then. We never made bids or went in for him, until after he started scoring for Salzburg.

“By then, Borussia Dortmund were there, Juventus were there, everyone was there. His release clause then was still good – €60m.”

Haaland’s former Borussia Dortmund teammate Jude Bellingham was given royal treatment when visiting United as a 17-year-old, but his mind had already been made up.

“Jude, he was in the building. I was there, Sir Alex Ferguson was there, Bryan Robson and Eric Cantona were all there that day when he came to the club.

“We all spoke to him and sold it as well as he could. He knew what he wanted a certain amount of minutes in the first team.

“He was 17 at the time, and he was the most mature 17-year-old I’ve ever met – he had it all planned out.”

Key stat: Man City striker Erling Haaland has scored more Premier League goals against Manchester United (6) than any other side.