Manchester United’s caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer insists his side’s trip to Tottenham should be about the players and not his head-to-head battle with Mauricio Pochettino.
Sunday’s Premier League match at Wembley will see Solskjaer face off against the man widely considered his main rival to become United’s full-time manager from next season.
The Norwegian is currently in charge at Old Trafford until the end of the season, having replaced the sacked Jose Mourinho in December, a move designed to give the club’s board time to consider their options regarding a permanent replacement.
Solskjaer, who scored 126 goals in 366 appearances for United between 1996 and 2007, has made it clear that he would love to stay on as manager beyond this season, helping his cause by winning his first five matches in charge.
However, he said that he did not see Sunday’s match as an audition for he or Pochettino, who has caught United’s eye by making Tottenham top-four regulars in recent seasons despite limited resources.
“It should always be about the players, because it’s not about me. It’s not about him,” said Solskjaer.
“We don’t kick a ball at all. They kick a ball. Of course, we might make a decision here or there, but it’s down to the players to perform and I’m sure my boys are ready.”
Solskjaer’s focus since arriving back at United has been on improving the players’ fitness levels and on building connections with his squad.
A warm-weather training trip to Dubai during the week was intended to help on both fronts, with his players put through a series of rigorous training exercises and Solskjaer taking the chance to speak to them on a one-to-one basis.
Solskjaer was at pains not to criticise the fitness work done by United under Mourinho, instead comparing the Dubai trip to the “mini pre-season” the squad used to go through each January at Old Trafford when he was a player under Alex Ferguson.
“We always used to do that with the boss (Ferguson) as well, come January. We had a mini pre-season and I think it’s important, when you’ve got a full week, that you do a proper training week.
“But looking at the stats in the five games since I came in, they’ve gone up. We do outsprint teams, we’ve produced higher intensity than the opposition in every single one of them.
“I think that’s one of the best compliments you can get as a coach, when the other manager says ‘Your boys worked hard’ because if my boys work as hard as this, it will take a lot to beat us.”
Solskjaer hopes his one-to-one chats will help to get the best out of players such as Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez, expensive purchases who have had difficult seasons.
Lukaku went 12 United games in all competitions without a goal earlier this season, while Sanchez, who is battling a hamstring injury in the lead-up to Sunday’s game, has scored just four times for the club since arriving from Arsenal last January.
“Every single player needs that eye-to-eye connection, I’m sure. They want to know what is expected of them, but it’s not just me telling them what to do. It’s about asking: ‘What are your strengths? What do you feel? What can you give to the team?’
“Alexis has got high standards for himself. You demand a lot from yourself and when it doesn’t work, as it clearly hasn’t, and he’s had some injuries, then it’s difficult to suddenly put that confidence on.
“It’s a fresh start for him with me and Mick (Phelan) coming in. It’s a new lease of life, maybe. Hopefully we can see the best of him, because he is a top, top player.”