Ahead of our Monday night Europa League quarter-final against Copenhagen, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer spoke to the press with Brandon Williams.
We saw Phil Jones didn’t travel. Is there any fitness news?
OGS: We’ve travelled with a big squad. Phil, Axel and Luke are the three we’ve left behind.
Brandon, you started the season with the Reserve team. You’ve stepped up and now could be playing in a major final for Man United. How does that feel?
BW: I think it’s been a crazy season for me and my family. I started with the Reserves and now I’m playing with the first team and I want to play as many games as possible.
International managers in the past have talked of the difficulty of keeping players stimulated during a tournament. With the lockdown measures in place it’s even more difficult for you. How do you intend to keep the players entertained and stop them from going stir crazy? You could be out here for the best part of two weeks.
OGS: We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. We’ve plans in place but for me it’s only about this game now. You can’t think too far ahead. It’s a knock out tournament. If you don’t perform, you’re going home. If you go through you’ve got a few days until the next game. At the moment, we don’t have that problem.
You’ve had such a great season with the breakthrough coming relatively late with you not going on the pre-season tour. At what stage did you feel like you were completely in the first team squad and you very much belonged there?
BW: I don’t think it’s a case of that because at any moment I could drop down in to the U-23s or I could pick up an injury, so I’m just focussing on what I’m doing. I want to keep working hard, improve what I need to improve, and play as many games for the club as I can.
You really think you could get dropped down to the U-23s? You’ve had an incredible journey so far.
BW: I think it’s down to myself to keep improving and keep myself fit so I’m ready to play in every game. I’m always ready for the next game. We’ve got games coming up, and one tomorrow, and it’s a one-off game so we need to win.
Can you describe your relationship with Ståle (Solbakken) as a player, as a manager? You know him very well. You’ve watched him and his progress at FC Copenhagen.
OGS: I’ve known Ståle for years. I first played against him in 1995. He’s had a very good career as a player. He was always the one we’d look to when playing against them to stop him from playing and creating. He’s had a fantastic coaching career. He started off with his home town team, HamKam, and he’s been at Copenhagen for two spells, he’s been in Germany here in Cologne, he’s been in the Championship with Wolves. So in a similar way, he’s had his ups and downs, but he’s really come through again. He’s leaving a legacy at Copenhagen now they’re in the quarters for the first time. It’s step by step for him. I went to Copenhagen to study to do my pro license, which was very kind of him to let me, and they lost to Chelsea. Hopefully this time they’ll lose to us!
You’ve been playing behind closed doors for quite a while now but is it still strange playing such an important run of fixtures without any fans?
OGS: I think it’s strange and it isn’t football as it should be. I think it’s changed things. The passion and edge to the game is missing. They’ve got to be there. But I have to commend our players, they’ve done really well, they’ve handled the situation really well, and I know our fans can’t wait to get back to Old Trafford to support us, so we’ll just have to try to make the most of this Europa League now, so they’re looking forward even more to seeing the players.
I want to ask you about Paul Pogba. A year ago he spoke about needing a new challenge but yesterday he posted a video posting his fourth year anniversary of returning to Manchester United. He’s got the same haircut as he had for that announcement. What does that mean to you as a coach that he’s now happy to being at this club and, as it seems, looking forward to an exciting future?
OGS: I’ve answered numerous questions on Paul. We’re delighted that he’s back playing, he’s fit, he’s enjoying his football. He’s got to make up for lost time and he’s trying to do that. He’s doing extra training, he’s always a great personality around the place and hopefully we can see him lift this trophy again. He’s professional, he’s a fantastic boy, and I’m delighted that we’ve got him in the team.
You selected Sergio Romero for the last game. How difficult is it for you to make a decision between your two goalkeepers for the rest of this tournament?
OGS: That’s an obvious question. I think I must be the most privileged manager in the world with our goalkeeper department. We’ve got Sergio, David and Dean Henderson as well coming back, so you’ve got three top, top keepers and this season has shown again how important Sergio has been for us. Also, for me, David has always performing there, so we’ll see what we do going forward. Difficult? Of course it is. But it’s a nice problem to have.
You play with such personality and aggression on the pitch. Where does that come from? And also you can play in different position, left-back, left wing-back, I think even right wing against Liverpool. If you have any thoughts on where you play on the pitch?
BW: I think it’s from when I’ve been a kid here from the age of eight. It’s drilled in to you from a young age what this club means and it’s part of the DNA to have that inside you. But you’ve got to have it controlled and not over the top so I think that’s from the United coaches over the years gave me. Wherever the manager wants me to play I’m always willing to put a shift in and do my job. I’m just happy to be out on the field to be honest, it doesn’t matter where I play.
You’ve spoken about Anthony Martial in the past and how he needs to get more poachers goals. He seems to be doing that. Are you also pleased with how he’s becoming a powerhouse centre-forward. He’s got more strength. Is this something that you worked on and like to see?
OGS: Oh definitely. Anto has made huge strides this season in many aspects of his game. I like him scoring, being in between the posts and scoring the simple goals. We know he can do the worldies. He’s in the gymn a lot and he’s working on his fitness and strength with the staff. They’ve done a fantastic job with him. He’s physically at his best level in his career. I’m just looking forward to seeing him improve even more. There’s more to come from Anthony, definitely.
This is the first Europa quarter-final for Copenhagen. They’ve beaten the Scottish and Turkish champions. Are you surprised to see them this far in the tournament? And can you identify their main strengths?
OGS: No, not surprised at all. I know how Ståle has built the club and what they’re about because I’ve played against them when I was at Molde, I’ve known him for such a long time. Copenhagen has a great history in getting to Europe and doing well in Europe. I think Ståle’s team has got the individuals, some very good players. Some interesting young forwards, the three of them, and experienced players in midfield and at the back. But I think their biggest strength is their team work and how well organised Ståle’s teams always are.
You’re in the later rounds of a European tournament but there are no fans in the stadium. It’s a shortened tournament with one leg games. If you went on to win it, would it mean as much, with all the changes that have happened?
OGS: We are in a strange period and strange times at the moment, unprecedented, and we’ve just got to make the most of it. If we’re able to go through to the semis and to the final it would mean a lot to the players, the club, the supporters, the staff. We just have to make the best out of a difficult situation.
You mentioned your goalkeepers before. Have you made a decision on what will happen with Dean Henderson next season? Also, during your time as a striker at United you had enormous competition up front and you constantly raised each other’s standards. Do you feel Anthony, Marcus and Mason are all egging each other on?
OGS: I think competition for places is important and we’re looking to have that, with Dean, David and Sergio in the ranks. Lee of course, the fantastic professional that he is backing them up. It will be difficult to keep all three at the club so we’ll see what the decision is there. Forward positions, scoring goals is always good for strikers. Seeing others scoring goals gives you a little bit of an edge because you don’t want to be behind them, but you also play for the team, and the three of them have been backing each other up. I hope they will develop and continue the development. It’s exciting times for United in the next few years.
You’ve spoken about you and Ståle. For two Norwegian managers to play against each other, he’s been there a while and you’re relatively new. Who’s the better Norwegian manager – the one with the results or the one at the biggest club?
OGS: (Laughs). First of all, it’s not me against Ståle. He’s had a very good career. He’s had about 750 games or something. I’m getting towards about 400, so I’m not that new. Ståle is a bit older than me and you can probably tell that. I’m turning grey but hopefully I’ll keep the hair.
You’ve got a Champions League place by finishing third this season. Has that taken the pressure off you going in to the final stages of this competition as there’s not as much at stake?
OGS: I don’t think so because we went in to this season knowing that Europa League is a great chance for us. To get a trophy and also to bring through youngsters. It was perfect for us. If we had been in the Champions League this season, while of course we all want to be in the Champions League, we maybe wouldn’t have had the chance to play the likes of Brandon and Mason as much as we would’ve liked. They have started what are now going to be fantastic careers. The Europa League has been about that as well. It’s about keeping the squad together, working together and giving people chances. When they take them, like Brandon, who is going to play in a European quarter-final, it’s a great achievement for him. It’s been perfect for us.
You’ve only lost one of the last 23 games. How have the team changed over the last five months?
OGS: We’ve developed through the season. We’ve a squad that has been working together. There were a few changes in the January window that made us even stronger, but the team work that we’ve done, they’re becoming more of a group and it’s becoming more natural. We found good form. We’ve got good players. We got players back from injury, but one in 23 is one too many.