Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needs a trophy this season. He’s been in charge of Manchester United since December 2018 and steadily improved the side, who lost out on the Europa League to Villarreal on penalties in May, but he’s yet to lift any silverware.
With world class talents Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane added to his squad at considerable expense, he’s got the best team he’s ever managed as he hopes to go one better than last season’s second place finish.
Solskjaer, speaking in his first pre-match press conference of the season, said Sancho will feature against Leeds United on Saturday and that Varane will not as he’s yet to train since his transfer hasn’t been completed. The latter frustrates United fans.
United finished 12 points behind champion Manchester City last season and the gap to the champions was even bigger in the seasons before. Can they close it this term? Can Manchester United win a first league title since 2013?
“We’ve gradually closed the gap and nothing is beyond these players,” said Solskjaer, when asked the question by The National.
“I wouldn’t put it past them but it will need a very disciplined season with some margins and some luck, but you want to come to April or May and be around (the top). To do that, we’ve put the first chunk of work away and now it’s about getting results.
"The first game is a big one, it decides the mood in the club with the fans and the players. Then we have two more games before an international break where we’ll review if we are where we want to be. We have to start better than last season if we want to mount a challenge.”
United, with almost no pre-season a year ago, lost three of their opening six games, started poorly the previously season and the one before that. But while in a better position than a year ago, this pre-season has been far from ideal.
A game at Preston was called off meaning no game for 10 days, after players including Jesse Lingard, who was keen to make a positive impression, tested positive for Covid.
Solskjaer likes his players to have three weeks break in the summer, but that means that several returned late after the Euros or Copa America.
“It’s about giving them the time off that they need to recover,” said Solskjaer. “Footballers nowadays, you play 50 or 60 games at the higher intensity level, there’s more scrutiny, social media. They need to switch off. You can’t just add games and add games.
"If you’re successful, that means you have less time. I’ve always said players need a minimum of three weeks to mentally switch off and physically recharge.
"Some have had four weeks, some have had five for different reasons. Some are personal reasons, they’re had a shorter pre-season – say Fred, Luke (Shaw), Harry (Maguire), Jadon – because they went so far in the tournaments. Edinson (Cavani) was a different matter and that’s some personal reasons.
"We need players to play well. We need them to be fresh. The world hasn’t been perfect so there’s quarantine and isolation but I’m sure we’ll reap the benefit when they’ve really got going. Some have only played 45 minutes or a couple of games. Normally you need four or five games after a long holiday.”
Asked about Anthony Martial, who had a poor season last year which was also hit by injury, Solskjaer said: “Anthony will score more goals than he did last season. Mason will only develop. Edinson started (scoring) late in the season (‘20-21). I think he’ll score more goals. Jadon will chip in with goals.
"I feel confident that the burden is not just on Bruno (last season’s top scorer) to score goals. He was fantastic, his return with goals and assists since he came to the club has been unbelievable.
"Marcus will lose out on the first couple of months of the season which isn’t great for him but when he comes back he’ll be fresh again. To be able to spread the goals among the forwards with more goals is going to be important for us. An attacking midfielder shouldn’t be the only one scoring 15-20 (league) goals.”
Martial may frustrate fans, but Solskjaer defends him.
“We rate Anthony. Last season was disappointing. He had injuries, he lost some form. The season before he was our top scorer. I like what I see from him when I see him in training or in the gym. He has that grit between his teeth.”
“We need that to challenge at the top. We can’t be too nice. We can’t have a ‘oh, there’s another game coming’ attitude. Every single game and every single training session matters. If you want to be successful, that’s what you need. Hopefully they’ve had a horrible feeling in their stomach like I have because the last game (against Villarreal) ended the way it did.”
Solskjaer described Leeds as the fittest team in the league.
“You have to be physically and mentally and tactically ready because the movements are so well drilled,” said Solskjaer, who has long admired Marcelo Bielsa. “You have to be brave on the ball and get away from your man because it’s well known that the man-marking style is not for everyone. He’s an amazing coach and manager.”
Solskjaer’s side won the equivalent fixture 6-2 last season before a 0-0 draw in Leeds. He needs the former type of result, not the latter on Saturday.