The manager of Manchester United, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, faced a selection of questions from journalists on Friday morning, in his second pre-match press conference of the week.
Following their Wednesday’s 5-0 demolition of RB Leipzig in the Champions League, attention has switched to this weekend’s Premier League clash with Arsenal.
It’s a fixture the boss knows all too well from his playing days, and he was quizzed about his thoughts on the rivalry during Friday’s press conference.
Via video link, Ole also faced questions about playing a diamond formation again, the performances of Paul Pogba and Fred in midweek, the response since losing to Tottenham Hotspur, and much more …
Mikel Arteta has been at Arsenal for 10 months now. How impressed have you been with the job that he is doing, and do you think we’re starting to see how he wants his team to play?
“Well, I think any manager would need time to put his principles in place. Of course, he’s already won a trophy with them with what he is doing.
“You can see that he has his own ideas and that he’s also worked under a top manager before. At the start of your career as a manager, if you can start winning already, that’s a foundation to build from. I think they’ve found a manager who wants the best for the club.”
You’ve experienced that United v Arsenal rivalry over the years. How would you describe that and how it’s changed over the years?
“When I played it was between us and Arsenal to win the league. That was a very fierce rivalry. There were all sorts of stories about what has been happening and I don’t have to rip up any of them.
“The passion, the excitement, and the importance of those games … of course, we knew if we beat Arsenal and got six points from them that would be us winning the league more or less, and vice versa. So there have been some unbelievable games; some fond memories, some bad memories.
“Of course, now there is still the rivalry and still the history, but for now, we don’t think about them as our rivals, or as anyone as our rivals. We just need to put points on the board and it’s so early anyway.”
I’m guessing it’s correct saying that Alex Telles won’t be involved this weekend. Is there anybody else that won’t?
“Alex won’t be ready, no. Apart from that, I would think everyone else, at the moment, looks like they will be involved.”
How are you going to deal with Phil Jones and Sergio Romero? They’re not in the squad and there are two months before they can move anywhere. How’s that situation and how are you going to handle it?
“Sergio has just come back into training this week. He’s started his pre-season work and he’s working to get to his peak fitness with the goalkeepers.
“Phil has been injured and he had an operation and he’s been working really hard to get back. He’ll hopefully get fit during December. That was a natural thing when you’re injured, you can’t really be in the squad, can you? He’s working really diligently and he’ll be coming back soon.”
Is that the difference now from when you were a player? That then it was just one team you had to beat – whether it was Arsenal or Chelsea – but now there’s a whole lot more going for the title?
“I think football has developed and so many clubs have developed strength in depth and the ability to challenge for trophies. Even though the last two seasons you had two teams running away with it, I think this season a lot of us underneath them would hope to put up a challenge.
“But back then, we felt it was us or Arsenal, or then Chelsea came through as well. For me, it’s probably more interesting and exciting for the fans that’s it’s not going to be [just] one of these two. I think it’s showed this season that anything can happen, with what’s happening around the world. We’re just taking it one game at a time.”
Post-Sir Alex, United managers tend to be judged from game to game. Over the last 12 months, you must be happy to see how the trajectory is going in the right way?
“We keep on working; we want to develop, we want to improve. It’s not up to me to say how far we’ve come down that line, but I’ve been very pleased with the response after what we did early on in the season.
“We knew we had to hang in early on, try and get points on the board because we were far behind. But now we feel fit and strong and competitive in every game.”
You talked about the diamond after the game on Wednesday. If you are going to use that more going forward what do you need to see from Luke [Shaw] and Aaron [Wan-Bissaka] in that final third?
“It’s different demands in different systems. They’re still the same principles of a Man United full-back: you need to be good at defending and good going forward. It’s a position that we’ve always been very good at. We know that we need assists and even goals from them.
“Both of them have played and developed. I think they are improving. We don’t really have wide, wide wingers now like we used to do with [Ryan] Giggsy and David Beckham. We are more dependent on the full-backs to come forward and give us width.”
Paul Pogba played brilliantly the other night a bit further forward. Is that the way forward for him, playing a bit more advanced? Because I know under you he’s had more of a withheld role …
“Paul can do everything on the football pitch, more or less. He can play long passes, he can get into the box, he can make combinations outside the box. He played really well. He did impact the game. We love to see when he’s driving forward and affecting the game.
“What has been the case with Paul after being injured for so long and then ill, it’s about getting fitness. It’s about getting his fitness back and his sharpness back. The fitter he is, the more he can do.”
You can use five substitutes in Europe but that was voted against in the Premier League. Given the options in your squad, I’m sure you wanted to play more players. Looking at your rivals struggling with injuries, would you have liked to see five subs in the Premier League this season?
“One hundred per cent. And I don’t understand, and cannot believe, that the vote went against because we have to look after the players; we have to think about the players. This season is the most demanding season of all.
“I can see the point why clubs voted against, but if you take a step back and think about these professional footballers and their mental and physical health, I think the only sensible solution would have been to give us the opportunity to rest players more.
“We’ve already seen loads of injuries in the Premier League, I know Pep [Guardiola] has been talking about it, and other managers. We as managers, as clubs, as medical staff have to look after them. That is why we have to rest players at certain times. So, yeah, I would have liked to have five subs.”
You’ve been asked a lot about how you fit all your players into your team. I just wonder, given the options you’ve got, is that actually your biggest strength in the title race, the fact that you have this squad depth?
“At the moment, we are looking like a Man United squad because I’ve got opportunities, I’ve got options for places. Any successful team in the modern era of football has had that option to rest players and to rotate.
“That’s probably the only way you can last in this, the most intense league in the world for me, and also in the Champions League. You want to go for the trophies.”
It was another impressive performance by Fred on Wednesday night. Is he starting to show signs of why the club spent so much money on him two years ago?
“He’s got incredible attributes, Fred, and we are seeing the better side of Fred, definitely. We’ve waited for it. I thought he did a fantastic season last season and he did what we wanted from him. He’s a humble boy; he works really hard.
“He said after that game that he missed a couple of passes, but that’s in his genes as well, to always look to improve and to look at his own performance. I think his high energy … he’s little but his balance is fantastic. He is so sharp to win balls; he wins the ball and can also play a good pass. I’m delighted with his development.”
This is your 100th game since taking the wheel at Old Trafford, actually. How would you sum up your time as a United manager so far, and how is facing Arsenal in a game like this, knowing you haven’t beaten them yet in the Premier League?
“Arsenal is always going to be difficult because they are a very good team with a very good manager, who’s got some great ideas on how football should be played, and I’m looking forward to it.
“Of course, I’m surprised it’s 100 – it’s gone really quick, even though a lot has happened. Let’s hope I can celebrate no.100 with good performance and a win. I’ve enjoyed it so far.”
It’s been four games since the Spurs defeat – four quite tough games, but you’ve had three wins and one draw. Did that game change your thinking in any way? And what have you done since then to bring about these four fairly good games?
“I think any result as brutal as the 6-1 would have to get a response. It has been dealt with internally. We’ve tweaked a couple of things and got players fit. I think the manner of the defeat wasn’t anything that we should have to be confronted with again.
“Then again, things happen in football these days. The response has been fantastic and that’s what I’m concerned about because we wanted to finish that off as soon as we could and just move forward.”