Lee Sharpe exclusive interview
The ex-England midfielder discusses Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the Manchester derby.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Is Solskjaer the right man to return Manchester United to the top?
"I’m not particularly confident that Solskjaer is the right choice to be trusted with taking Manchester United back to where they belong. I have the utmost respect for him, but I fear the job is too big at this stage of his managerial career. However, now that the decision has been made, the club have no choice but to give him lots of time and lots of money in the transfer market. The board were in an awkward position because I don’t think they could have given the job to anybody else after the huge impact he had made as interim manager."
Were you surprised Manchester United gave Solskjaer the permanent job so soon?
"I’m very surprised that Manchester United chose to confirm Solskjaer as manager as soon as they did. I don’t know why the club decided to appoint him when they did or what they had to gain from rushing the decision. Solskjaer wasn’t going to go anywhere and the club weren’t competing for his signature so there’s no doubt in my mind that they should have waited until the end of the season.
"I can only assume they wanted to give Solskjaer and the players a confidence boost to try maintain that momentum, but it has had the opposite effect. I think Solskjaer has struggled to adapt to the new levels of pressure and expectation now he is officially the permanent boss. It has all unravelled so quickly and the season is now looking very empty compared to what the board might have hoped for when they made the decision They’re suddenly out of the FA Cup, they’re out of the Champions League and finishing in the top 4 is looking increasingly unlikely. It’s a very difficult situation for Solskjaer.
"I think the club has been guilty of making a lot of premature decisions since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, such as giving Mourinho a new contract, and those decisions have cost them badly. I really hope this doesn’t prove to be another costly mistake, but only time will tell."
Why do you think Manchester United went down the Solskjaer route instead of someone like Pochettino?
"Manchester United are one of the biggest clubs in the world and I think they should have broken the bank to get the best manager. That man is Pochettino. It would have taken a lot of money to prize Pochettino away from Tottenham, especially with the new stadium and likely Champions League football next year, but Manchester United have that financial muscle if they had chosen to flex it.
"I would have gone down the Pochettino route. My biggest concern with Solksjaer is how few boxes he has ticked due to his lack of experience. Pochettino has that Premier League and Champions League experience, as well as a reputation that would attract star signings and a track record of improving players. His teams punch above their weight, he is good tactically and he gets the best out of young players. We can’t say for sure that Solskjaer ticks any of those boxes because he hasn’t done it before. There’s no such thing as a guarantee in football, but Pochettino was the safest option we could have dreamed of.
"I assume that Manchester United received feedback that Pochettino wouldn’t be looking to move this summer so they decided to bite the bullet with Solskjaer. He has done a good job at Molde but Manchester United are a very different beast and it’s a huge step up to suddenly manage the biggest club in the world from top to bottom. I have my fingers crossed he will deliver."
What will Solskjaer bring to Manchester United?
"No manager in the world knows what is needed to be a success at Manchester United better than Solskjaer does. He will bring attacking football to entertain the crowds and the club will now go into every game on the front foot looking to win for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. I think we say that in his first dozen games and that is the level that he will aim to return to.
"Solksjaer also knows what is expected to be a Manchester United player. He knows that talent only takes a player so far and that it is work ethic and fitness that can take a squad to the next level. He has already stressed he won’t accept less than 100% and he wants his players to be the hardest working in the Premier League."
There are critics that believe Man Utd have been guilty of making an emotional decision choosing Solskjaer. What do you think?
"I think the idea to bring in Solskjaer as the interim manager was inspired and it worked perfectly. The whole club was beginning to lose its identity under Mourinho and he had sapped all enthusiasm from both the players and the fans. Mourinho had the best job in the world, but he was so bitter that he left the squad flat and devoid of any confidence whatsoever. Solskjaer is a cult hero, a fan favourite and such a positive person that he was the perfect medicine for what everyone needed at the time.
"I do worry that it was an emotional or sentimental decision to appoint Solskjaer as permanent manager. It is difficult to compare his CV to the other names who were tipped for the job and argue it is a strictly logical decision that made him the best candidate. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing though. I think the fans needed someone who had the club in their heart rather than being used for someone’s ego like under Mourinho.
"I think that the board have probably bought themselves some time by naming Solskjaer as manager rather than breaking the bank for someone. There will be lower immediate expectations now. The fans will know and understand that this squad will not be a quick fix for Solskjaer, but they might have fallen into the trap of expecting a miracle next season if Pochettino had come in."
Paul Ince has reiterated his opinion that anyone, including himself, could have done the job Solksjaer has. What are your thoughts on this?
"I don’t agree with Paul Ince that he could have done the job that Solskjaer has done at Manchester United. I know what he is saying that there are times when a manager can have players as good as what Manchester United have and it doesn’t take much beyond giving them that freedom. Solskjaer had a miraculous start at Manchester United and I don’t think anybody else would have been able to have that same impact.
"I think it definitely benefitted Solskjaer that he knew the club so well and didn’t need to spend weeks or months learning about how things are done. Paul Ince might have had a similarly good foundation to build on, but I think that’s where the comparison stops. Solskjaer has filled the players with confidence and playing with enjoyment, but he has done far more than simply put smiles on faces. I think Solskjaer showed great tactical nous in away wins against Arsenal and Chelsea.
"There’s no doubt that the real management test starts now that Manchester United have lost a few games and they need to turn results around very quickly if they’re to qualify for the Champions League."
Manchester United v Manchester City
How big is the Manchester derby on Wednesday?
"It’s a massive game against Manchester City and we really need a result if the club is to qualify for the Champions League. I can’t see Manchester United finishing in the top 4 if we were to lose, but if we were to get a win then I would expect the confidence boost to drag us over the line ahead of Chelsea and Arsenal.
"Manchester United will be desperate to respond after being beaten badly and humbled by a shocking performance against Everton. The worry is that if the club repeats that kind of performance then Manchester City are capable of winning 5-0 and it could very quickly become an embarrassing defeat that hurts for much longer than 90 minutes. I would be very concerned if we go a goal behind early in the match because some players could fold and that’s the worst-case scenario heading into a 6-pointer against Chelsea at the weekend.
"This a huge game and there’s a lot more than local bragging rights on the line against Manchester City. I expect Manchester United to turn up in these big games and if the players shy away like they did against Everton then they shouldn’t be at the club. I’m confident we will get the win, even if that does unfortunately mean helping out Liverpool."
Who will be the key men against Manchester City?
"I think every player will be fighting for their futures against Manchester City and that is the mindset that Solskjaer is trying to instil into this squad. This is the time for the players to be accelerating while other teams are taking their foot off the gas and that is what being a Manchester United player is all about.
"De Gea and the two central defenders, Smalling and Lindelof, will be tested by Manchester City. We can’t afford any sloppy mistakes otherwise the game is gone so concentration will be crucial, especially as we’re unlikely to have too much possession. Pogba needs to step up and drag this midfield into contention as we can’t afford to concede control of the game at Old Trafford. Rashford and Lukaku need to have their shooting boots on and show ruthless finishing because we need to take the few chances we do get when on the front foot."
Do you think it will be a strange atmosphere knowing United will hand Liverpool the initiative in the Premier League if they avoid defeat against Manchester City?
"It’s a very difficult situation for the fans against Manchester City knowing that a result could effectively win Liverpool the Premier League. There’s no doubt that the big rivalry is still with Liverpool rather than Manchester City and that will be the case until our neighbours win a dozen Premier Leagues or multiple Champions Leagues.
"I think if Manchester United had beaten the likes of Wolves and Everton and were feeling more comfortable in the race for the top 4, the fans would be fine with losing the derby if it meant stopping Liverpool winning the Premier League. That’s no longer the case and it’s now imperative that Manchester United go for the win. It’s the best scenario that Liverpool could have wished for as it’s no secret seeing them lift the Premier League is the club’s worst nightmare."
Is it painful to watch Man Utd’s two biggest rivals compete for the Premier League?
"Manchester United are kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place as they helplessly sit and watch their rivals Liverpool and Manchester City light up the Premier League. The two teams have been brilliant this year and they’re performing at a completely different level. They have set the standard that Manchester United need to aspire to get back to while playing the style of attacking football that is becoming a distant memory for their fans.
"I see some resemblance between the squad that Klopp is building at Liverpool and what Sir Alex Ferguson’s sides were famous for at Manchester United. Liverpool have unbelievable pace that is built for hitting teams on the counter, as well as a very strong spine that will outpower the vast majority of teams while still maintaining control in midfield. Sir Alex Ferguson knew that defences and goalkeepers decide who win the Premier League and Klopp addressed both those issues with world record fees on van Dijk and Alisson. Those two will be every bit as responsible for winning the Premier League as Mane and Salah."
How impressed have you been with Manchester City under Guardiola?
"I think Guardiola has been a revelation in England. There were big questions when he first arrived whether he would be able to replicate his style of play that brought success at Barcelona in the more physical Premier League, but those doubts are long gone. Guardiola has been unbelievable at Manchester City and they’re so exciting to watch. I can’t remember a set of players looking so comfortable on the ball. He doesn’t necessarily get the credit he deserves because he has spent big money, but you just need to look at his recruitment compared to Manchester United’s to understand he has spent incredibly well. Guardiola improves players and Sterling is capable of becoming one of the best in the world."
Man Utd have lost six of their last eight games, with Man City and Chelsea to come. Could the board start to lose confidence in Solskjaer if we lose both of those?
"There’s no hiding the fact that Manchester United cannot afford to lose these games against Manchester City and Chelsea. The club is already on a dreadful run of results and eight defeats in ten games is unacceptable by anyone’s standards, but I don’t think it would cause the club to have second thoughts about appointing Solskjaer. I think the board would have expected a wobble and the fact it has happened so soon, before he has had a chance in the transfer market, should save him. However, if Manchester United start next season with a run of results that we’re seeing at the moment, they may well hit the panic button."BET NOW