Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 9 August 2020

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer follows in Ferguson's footsteps and puts faith in kids

Manchester United manager pleased with personnel decisions he made over last year as Red Devils prepare to take on Aston Villa

Aston Villa, where Manchester United visit on Thursday evening, was where Alex Ferguson fielded a very young side on the opening day of the 1995/96 season. United were defeated 3-1, Alan Hansen’s “you don't win anything with kids” quote from that day was later immortalised after a young United side won the league and the FA Cup that season.

The current United side is even younger. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team were never in the race to win the league this season, but could win the FA Cup, and have done better in Europe than the 1995/96 squad. Winning the Europa League next month is another chance of a trophy, another way of getting into the Champions League.

Such has been United’s good form in their 16 game unbeaten run that if the team who’d slipped as low as 14th in October win their remaining five games then they’ll be in the Champions League. Not that Solskjaer is satisfied with being in fifth, or United’s current league run.

“Sixteen games unbeaten gives us more confidence, but 16 games is nowhere near what a Man United team should strive towards,” he said ahead of the Villa match. “We can still go many more games unbeaten if we focus on the right things.”

That run was implausible when United last met Villa at the start of December. A 2-2 draw at Old Trafford meant United had won only four of their opening 14 league games.

Solskjaer was criticised for starting the season without a recognised No 9 after sanctioning the sale of Romelu Lukaku to Inter Milan and the loan of Alexis Sanchez, who could also play centrally, to the same club.

Though their departure wasn’t as strongly criticised as the sales of Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis were in 1995, the lack of replacements was.

“This is not a popularity contest and I will make decisions that I think will be for the benefit of the club,” Solskjaer told The National when asked if he felt vindicated for the changes he made last summer.

“The decisions we’ve made last summer and throughout January bringing players in and allowing players to move on, in my mind, were always for the good on the club and the team. Both in giving youngsters a chance and also in giving trust to the other ones. And also accepting that some players have been great servants of the club. For me, I would still make the same decisions if I could go back twelve months or six months.”

On Saturday, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford became the first pair of United strikers since 2011 to score 20 goals in a season. Mason Greenwood has scored 14 goals in his breakthrough term.

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Villa are facing an immediate relegation from the Premier League and are four points from safety, with a game in hand on Watford above them in 17th. Watford were the last team Villa beat in the league and Dean Smith’s side have lost seven and drawn two of the nine league games since.

“Villa can hold their own and their games have been tight,” said Solskjaer.

“It’s clear that they’ve worked on their shape and their counter attacks are one of the most powerful ones in the league. They spring quickly so you have to be ready for that and on set plays they have good delivery and good contact players with size. And there are some individual players there.”

Talking of the 2-2 result at Old Trafford when Jack Grealish was man of the match and subsequently linked with a move to Old Trafford, Solskjaer said: “Villa caused us some problems, both [Jack] Grealish coming in off the left and [Anwar] El Ghazi on the right. He [Grealish] scored a fantastic goal and there has been lots said about him. We need to be aware of him because whether he’s on the left, the middle or the right, what he does is attract players and create space for others. There’s not just one player in that team that could cause us problems.”

Solskjaer is happy with his team and he started the same lineup for the third successive game against Bournemouth. If Victor Lindelof it will likely be extended to a fourth.

This is a winning team where “Bruno [Fernandes] has come in and lifted everyone else” and Solskjaer thinks they’ll need to win all five league games to guarantee a place in the top four.

“Yes,” he said. “The teams around are playing well but there are so many games, we’re just focussing on them one by one. We can't rely on help from anyone else. We have to do it ourselves, to grow as a team and know that going into next season we can put a different challenge to the teams in the front of us.”

Updated: July 8, 2020 05:39 PM

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