Manchester United’s young squad face a nerve-jangling final away day to Leicester to secure Champions League football – but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer says his rising stars can learn from the club’s past to inspire them on their own journey.
United’s trip to the King Power Stadium on Sunday isn’t to clinch a Premier League crown – as was often the case come the climax to a season in Solskjaer’s playing days – but it nevertheless remains an important moment for both the club and the development of their young squad.
And Solskjaer believes this current crop – which have the lowest average age for a starting XI in the Premier League this season – must now experience their own decisive days as they build towards trying to replicate the achievements of the greats who have gone before them.
Leicester vs Man Utd
July 26, 2020, 3:00pm
“We want them to learn about the traditions and history of the club and what the players before them have done,” Solskjaer tells Sky Sports in an exclusive interview, before reflecting on how United beat Charlton in 2006, without Wayne Rooney or Ruud van Nistelrooy, to hold off Liverpool and secure the final Champions League group stage qualifying spot.
“[Manchester United’s former players] have played so many vital games at the end of the season – a cup final, a game to win the league, a game to get into the Champions League…
“I remember with Sir Alex, we had no strikers available the day before a game and we had to beat Charlton to get into second position. We won 4-0 and Giuseppe Rossi from the youth academy played a fantastic game. I’d been injured for ages and just hoped I could come on and help!
“So the players now are learning what the other players through history have been through. We’ve been doing well before as well, having setbacks and having to come back. But say, for example, Marcus [Rashford] or Mason [Greenwood], they’ve been in the academy for so many years, they’ve seen so many players having done this before them, so it’s a great learning for them.”
‘This is not the end of the journey, this is a stepping stone’
Despite a sluggish start to the season and a slight wobble in the last couple of weeks, Solskjaer says third place would be a deserved finishing position for United.
But when one result can have such an impact on the outcome of a team’s finishing position – third, best of the rest and back in the Champions League or fifth and facing another Europa League campaign if they don’t win it this season – perspective is vital.
Regardless of the result on Sunday, Solskjaer knows this United team still have a long way to go – but he remains a staunch defender of their potential.
“It would be a good boost and a nice boost for the team to finish third,” he said. “I know since October, after that international break, we’ve had the third-most points in the league. For a long, long spell now we’ve been the third best team, we just, in the start of the season, we were too inconsistent. Now we have got more consistency, more fitness levels, we’re more robust.
The old Winston Churchill quote is, ‘success isn’t final, failure isn’t fatal – then what you need is the courage to continue’. That’s what we’re going to do with this team, we continue.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
“And of course we want to be in amongst the elite in Europe and play in the Champions League but the old Winston Churchill quote is, ‘success isn’t final, failure isn’t fatal – then what you need is the courage to continue’.
“That’s what we’re going to do with this team, we continue. We carry on developing the team, improving and knowing that this is not the end of the journey for the team, this is just one other stepping stone in our development.”
A positive mindset
While one win in four has shifted the narrative around United towards concerns about fatigue and falling away at the finish of this long season, the wider picture shows this is a team which trailed Leicester by 14 points in January and has overhauled the deficit to require just a draw at the King Power Stadium on Sunday to finish in the top four.
That’s the outlook Solskjaer has on the situation – and he’s coaching his players to approach the fixture with a similarly optimistic, determined attitude.
“We have to go into the game with a positive mindset, going there to attack, going there to win the ball, going there on the front foot, defend on the front foot,” he said.
“We know Leicester are a good side and they’re going to pin us back at times and we’re going to have to defend our box as well, so stop crosses, if the crosses come into the box get first to it. All the basics in football.
“And you know you have to work really, really hard. You have to go there with a frame of mind that, ‘when I’m off the pitch today, I’ve given everything I have for the shirt’ – and hopefully that will be enough for a result.
“You can never control the result in a game of football, you can only control your effort in the performance.
“I just want to see them do what they’ve done over the last five or six weeks, go out there with a smile, express themselves, play with no fear, play with courage, go and attack teams, go and drive at them, create chances and defend well, like we have done.”
‘We’ll be sharp, fresh and ready’
While United are second only to Manchester City for points collected since the restart, only five teams have taken fewer points than Leicester, with the Foxes slipping down the table.
The toll of a long, hard and uniquely challenging season, with its long layoff then intense finale, has had its impact on all teams.
There will be a short breather for United’s players after Sunday before they prepare for their rest of their Europa League bid, but for now Solskjaer is backing his boys to have enough in the tank to go out and finish the task they set themselves back in January when defeat to Burnley left them six points off the top four and needing to make up a gap of five wins on Leicester.
“We hoped to arrive at the last game of the season needing to beat Leicester to go past them – I think I said that quite early, maybe in January,” said Solskjaer. “That was the aim and we’re here now.
“We feel good going into the game. We had to catch a few teams with both points and goals, and the boys have done exactly what’s been required. We’ve kept on chasing them and now we’re in the last game, 90 minutes to go.
“We’ll be in the same position as every other team in the league, feeling the effects of a long season but we’re ready to go, ready to play again. Every team will feel a long season coming towards the end.
“We have proven over the last five or six weeks that we are one of the fittest teams and one of the strongest teams. But all the other teams you’d feel a little bit of wear and tear, aches and bruises. I wouldn’t worry about my players at all in that respect. They’ll be sharp, fresh and ready.”