Man Utd and Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer want to avoid a possible Covid outbreak
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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s room at the plush Old Course Hotel that served as Manchester United’s retreat during a training camp in St Andrews this week overlooked the iconic 17th hole on one of the world’s most famous golf courses.
The so-called Road Hole, with its treacherous greenside bunker, is littered with obstacles, not unlike the challenge Solskjaer will face this season as he bids to end United’s eight-year wait to win the Premier League title and prove the club were right to back him with a new three-year contract last month.
Not that he says the new deal will mean much if he fails to deliver. “For me you have to do well enough to stay anyway,” the United manager said. “It doesn’t matter if you have a 10-year contract or a one-year contract, if you don’t do well off you go. You feel under pressure all the time. At this club, it’s not just about clinging on to your job, it’s about the responsibility that’s in my hands.”
United have signed Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane, the latter subject to a medical, this summer in an effort to bridge what was a 12-point gap to Manchester City last season but whether it is enough when the champions are prepared to break the Premier League transfer record twice in a few weeks remains to be seen.
Jack Grealish is arriving at City from Aston Villa for £100million, a fee that eclipsed the £89m United paid Juventus for Paul Pogba in 2016, and the £150m rated Harry Kane could yet follow his England team-mate to the Etihad Stadium.
Jadon Sancho is Manchester United's big-money summer signing
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“Of course you pay attention and you notice that there’s possibly big money being spent somewhere else,” Solskjaer said. “You have to keep up with the challenges. Anyone who ends up above last year’s champions will be champions.”
With the European champions Chelsea hoping to add the former United striker Romelu Lukaku to their ranks and Virgil van Dijk back to bolster Liverpool’s defence, Solskjaer says “it feels like this season coming up is [going to be] one of the strongest Premier League seasons”.
“Of course, it’s been City and Liverpool fighting it out for a few years,” he added. “I feel us and Chelsea have spent well and worked well and we should look at ourselves as potential challengers – but it’s potential. The first game is the most important then the first block of games and then you have to keep that momentum.”
United face Leeds in their opening game next Saturday and Solskjaer makes no attempt to hide the importance of hitting the ground running after poor starts in each of the previous two campaigns, even if the late returns of those players who featured in tournaments this summer has complicated preparations.
“You put every season into blocks but the first six or seven games, they’re very important to set the momentum and to give you a chance,” he said. “I read somewhere that Pep [Guardiola, the City manager] said you can’t win the league in the first eight games but you can lose the chance to win it and that’s what happened to us last season.
“I felt we lost too many points early on. From November 1 until the Leicester [defeat] in May, we only lost one league game. That was the consistency we want to see again.”
Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw, David De Gea, Victor Lindelof, Paul Pogba and Fred only joined up with the squad this week after their exertions at the Euros and Copa America, Sancho and Edinson Cavani are reporting back even later and Varane is unlikely to be involved until next week. Add to that Marcus Rashford being sidelined until late October following shoulder surgery, Alex Telles out until next month, and goalkeeper Dean Henderson unavailable as he recovers from Covid and the situation is not ideal.
Paul Pogba is back in training with Manchester United
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But Solskjaer knows there must be a dramatic improvement on last season’s tally of seven points from the first six games and said he is hoping Sancho and Varane are fit enough for a place on the bench against Leeds. “It’s not perfect [the preparation] because I think teams with few players in tournaments do have an advantage early on but we’re as ready as we can be,” he said.
Can United win the title? “We’ve gone from third to second and a lot closer in points and we’ve gone from three semis to a final and one kick away from winning so it’s taking the next step now. That’s the challenge,” he said. “I’d rather be an optimist and be wrong than be a pessimist and be right. Of course, these boys can, with a maximum effort, maximum season and maximum sacrifice. Sometimes you think back and you have to be mentally strong and robust, you can’t be flaky at this club because then you might as well knock on my door and say, ‘This is not for me’.”
United must sell before they can buy again and Solskjaer said any more signings before the transfer window closes would be a “bonus” at the same time as emphasising the need for a “big squad”. He certainly seems to be planning for Jesse Lingard to remain at the club.
“We need to arrive in April and May with players fresh and enough options,” he said, a reference perhaps to how they tailed off in the final weeks of last season. “Bruno last year, for example, maybe I overplayed him but it was because he was so important for us. Adding these extra players – Jesse coming back, Jadon coming in, Anthony [Martial] being fit again – it gives us a lot more to work with.”
Pogba could also stay. “Paul has come back and he’s fresh and he’s always such a positive boy,” the manager added. “The talks I’ve had with him have all been positive.”
De Gea is in line to start against Leeds with Henderson suffering prolonged fatigue from Covid and Solskjaer hopes the pair continue to embrace the competition for the No. 1 spot.
“If you’re too comfortable, I don’t think you get the best out of yourself,” he said. “You need an edge of ‘If I don’t perform, someone else is going to take my place’ but it has to be healthy for the team. If it’s toxic and energy-sapping that’s not great. Last year it was a new situation for David and for Dean. This year, let’s see how it works out.”
Talks with players about Covid vaccinations will continue, says Solskjaer
By James Ducker
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has revealed that Manchester United plan to hold further talks with their players over vaccinations with some still harbouring doubts about receiving the jab.
The United manager has also warned his squad to be extra vigilant about their movements next season to help safeguard against the threat of a Covid outbreak at the club.
Many dressing rooms in the Premier League and across the English Football League are rumoured to be split over whether to have the vaccine. Some players are thought to have opted out for personal or religious reasons and others have raised concerns about the long-term effects of having the vaccine. United have left the choice with the players but Solskjaer said he was keen to ensure they were armed with all the necessary information before making a decision and suggested the club would hold more discussions with the squad about the matter.
“Yeah, we’ve informed them and some of them are already fully vaccinated. Some are not sure,” he said. “But we’re going to have a bigger session with them now because I think it’s important that everyone knows what it’s about.”
United kick off their Premier League season against Leeds at Old Trafford next Saturday and, with the public now able to mix freely, Solskjaer believes it is imperative that his players think very carefully about their movements outside the club amid concerns about positive tests ruling them out of action.
United are already without goalkeeper Dean Henderson, who is suffering from “prolonged fatigue” after testing positive for coronavirus over three weeks ago.
“We live in a world where the rates are still high,” he said. “Footballers have been privileged because, when the world has been closed, we’ve been able to play football. Now the rest of it has opened but we have to be really careful because if they spend too long in a place then they might catch something. So we’ve got to be really careful. But it’s a sacrifice we’ve got to make to play football.”
Solskjaer also warned that fans could not expect the same interaction with players given the inherent risks and threat of missing games.
“Signing autographs for the kids, taking pictures, yeah we want to do it but we can’t,” he said. “That’s hard for us. For the Leeds game, Old Trafford will be full, fans will be outside, we want to engage with them but we can’t really because you think, ‘If I catch something here it’s a four game ban. Literally.’ So it’s such a difficult one.”
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knows trophies are needed with Man Utd this season
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United face Everton at Old Trafford on Saturday in their final warm-up match before Leeds but they were forced to cancel a pre-season friendly against Preston last weekend after nine first-team players and staff were suspected to have tested positive for Covid.
With the subsequent PCR tests all coming back negative, a huge headache was averted on the eve of the new season, but Solskjaer admitted it was a warning of the challenges they could face going forward.
“That [Preston] I think was a testing mistake because all nine tested positive and then the next day when we did a proper PCR test they were negative but if that happened the day before the first league game that would be a problem,” he said. “That’s not our fault what happened but it’s cost us preparation time, it’s cost us a couple of days away from the training ground. So when you say the summer has been perfect, it’s not been perfect because the world is not perfect.”