Ole Gunnar Solskjær has insisted no Manchester United player can “fake” their way in his team because of the transformation in mentality since he took over two years ago.
United will begin 2021 in second place, three points behind Liverpool and with a game in hand on the leaders, after the late victory against Wolves at Old Trafford on Tuesday. Solskjær’s side were below par yet still claimed all three points with Marcus Rashford’s stoppage-time strike.
Yet while Solskjær played down the suggestion of a title challenge given United have played only 15 matches, he believes the side is a different proposition now to when he replaced José Mourinho in December 2018.
“There is a real change in mentality,” the Norwegian said. “One, they’re two years older than when I came. Two, some of them are really strong personalities that we’ve brought in and they have been a really good influence. We have competition for places which means you cannot go around and think you can just fake your way being part of this team. You only deserve to be in a team that you contribute to.
“Everyone has realised they are privileged to be part of Man United, such a fantastic club with a fantastic history. When you’re here, enjoy it as much as you can and maybe you’ll experience some fantastic times. We’ve got winners like Juan Mata and Nemanja Matic: they don’t play every single game but they are so influential in the group and the build-up to games and during games when they’re not playing.”
Against Wolves, Solskjær selected Matic and Paul Pogba in midfield and both performed admirably. Yet the 47-year-old admitted dropping Scott McTominay and Fred had been difficult because of their recent displays – even if the manager is happy to see competition in his squad that could help their cause in the long haul.
“That’s just the way it’s going to be,” Solskjær said. “Players will have to be angry with me until the next time they play because, believe you me, they’re not happy when I tell them they’re starting on the bench.
“That’s part of being at Man United, you’ve got top players everywhere. We know that throughout the season if you’re going to win something you have to contribute. It’s like [against Wolves]: Anthony [Martial] came on and did really well for half an hour. Luke [Shaw] came on and did really well.
“We have a strong squad and have rotated a lot. We’ve not really called it a settled XI because I don’t think this season is going to be about that anyway. It’s going to be about the squad. It’s going to be about the 25 players. Towards the end of the season that will help us – when you leave Scott and Fred out it’s not easy because they deserve to play every game, but Nemanja and Paul played so well against Everton.”
United have also triggered the one-year extension clause in Jesse Lingard’s contract despite the 28-year-old having made only two appearances this season. Lingard’s contract was due to expire in the summer but United have taken up the additional season built into that deal to keep him at the club until 2022.
Amad Diallo could also be added to the squad next month, with the 18-year-old Ivorian expected to be one of the first players to be granted a new Governing Body Endorsement post-Brexit that will allow him to complete his £23m move from Atalanta.
They host fifth-placed Aston Villa on New Year’s Day. “They have been brilliant. I have to say Dean Smith [the manager] has done a fantastic job,” Solskjaer said.