How is Solskjaer feeling ahead of Liverpool?
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer believes his Manchester United side are a much better outfit now, compared to the team who last played at Anfield 12 months ago.
The visitors lost on that occasion, opening up a 30-point deficit to the eventual title winners. A year on and Ole's men travel to Merseyside three clear of Liverpool in the table.
The boss spoke about that turnaround during Friday's pre-match press conference, as well as the mentality for United now we've gone top.
Ole also responded to questions via video chat about his signings, Jurgen Klopp, defending a title, the lack of fans at Anfield and much more, during this extended media briefing.
Below is every word he said...
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"You’re always excited when you're going to play against teams of that quality and calibre, of course. For us, form goes out the window. It doesn't really matter if it’s first or last game. You know when you go to Anfield that it's a big game for the club, a big game for the players, for the fans. I'm really looking forward to it. We're in good form at the moment.”
Going clear at the top of the table, have any of those you had success with at United as a player been in contact to congratulate you?
“You don’t get anything for being at the top of the league in January, so no, it's not a ‘congratulations', it's not something that we've ever really valued. It doesn't matter, it’s where you end up at the end of the season that matters. “
You've talked a lot about mentality and the improved mentality, I assume that is important going into the match at Anfield? How much tougher is this group of players and how much more together are they?
“It’s a great spirit. I think we’ve gained some valuable players with some valuable experience for some of the players, of course. Now, a few of the signings that we've made, Aaron [Wan-Bissaka], Dan [James], Harry [Maguire], the ones that I signed as well, they've been here a bit longer. They know more about the standards, the expectations, the pressures of being at United. I think we’ve become stronger mentally, physically and more robust in both parts. And, of course, you know Bruno [Fernandes], Edinson [Cavani], Odion [Ighalo], Alex [Telles], Donny [van de Beek] coming in from the outside. They are good human beings and good professionals which helps the group.”
“The next one is always the biggest, it's always the most important. Being, of course, where we are in the league gives us more confidence. It’s a sign of, or an indication, of where we’re at. The game against the champions. They have an amazing record at Anfield. In the league they haven't lost for many, many years, so it's a great test for us - can we go there and cause an upset?”
You've said yourself that the lead now doesn't matter this month, it's where you finish up. But Marcus Rashford has said in an interview that, given the position that you're in, finishing second or third wouldn't be a good season. Do you agree?
“I don’t know where we’re going to end up at the moment. You always want to improve, you always want to be better, you always have ambitions of winning every game and I’m glad the players think that way. It means we're doing something right here at the club. The mentality is right, they want to do it. For us, it’s a chance for us to test ourselves where we're really at because Liverpool at Anfield is one of the great challenges.
A number of coaches have had issues with Jurgen Klopp and his staff on the touchline in the past. They always seem to avoid a charge. Given how important this game is and that Klopp seems to be whipping up a siege mentality, do you think the officials need to keep a closer eye on his conduct and behaviour during the game?
“I don’t think it’s my place to give the officials any advice. They're good at what they're doing and it’s not something I think about at all. I have lots of respect for Jurgen and I haven't experienced that at all.”
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“Well, I think we have as many injuries as them. That’s just how football is, you get injuries and that’s just part and parcel of the game. I'll give everyone tomorrow as well to prove their fitness, to get a chance to go to that game. There are a couple of knocks that we got at Burnley that I’m not sure about. For us, form goes out the window when you play your rivals. But our form gives us confidence, so we’re confident going into the game. But we are the challengers, they are the champions and they earned the right to be the champions. We’re challengers and hunters and you want something that they’ve had, and they have. Our mentality will be to work hard, to be humble and to do our best to see what we can get out of the game.”
Is it hard to defend a title? As champions, do you think other clubs psychologically lift themselves a bit more because you're the champions? I know you've experienced that numerous times, obviously. Do you think Liverpool are facing that now?
“It was always the biggest game for teams when they played United when I played there. I think that's always going to be the case when you play against a team that have been successful. Everyone wants to be where they are. Everyone wants to be champions and everyone wants to beat them. They have earned the right to be looked up to. They've played some fantastic football and got some fantastic results in the last three-four years. For us, we go there with the knowledge that we have to play to our best and work harder than ever to get a result. That's what you do against the best team.”
You said it would be an upset, but you’re the ones top of the league. Would it really be an upset United beating Liverpool?
“Well, if you look at the last few seasons I think it would be an upset and it would be a shock. I think our position at the moment is the product of all the hard work that we have done on the training ground and what the players are putting down every single day. We probably deserve to be where we are at, at the moment. But I don’t think many would have thought anything but a… or another word for it other than an upset, if it was six weeks ago that we beat Liverpool at Anfield. We’re looking forward to the game and hopefully we can cause that upset.”
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“We’re a much better side now than a year ago. Then again, we lost that game to a [Virgil] van Dijk header from a corner and a counter-attack in the last kick of the game on our corner. So we were not a million miles away then either. I think that’s a misperception if people say we were a million miles away. We did have some moments in that game ourselves. The league position, that we are competitive, that we are up there with six, seven, eight teams, of course it’s a tighter season this year. I think the last few years, there have been two teams running away with it already by the end of October. Now, at least, we’re in it at halfway.”
Obviously, it’s three points up for grabs, but considering they haven’t lost at home in the league since April 2017, do you think there is an opportunity for United to punch that ‘air of invincibility’ around Liverpool and Anfield? And that this is a game when there could be psychological element to it as well as the three points?
“Well, I think every team goes into every game thinking that they can win it. We know that we can beat anyone, anywhere, on any given day. To be able to go into a game like this knowing feeling that if we play to our best we can win, is a good feeling, but we know we have to perform to our best and we don’t really think about the consequences after that and we just think about the performances. As I’ve said many times, it’s a test and reality check of where we are at. We have won many tight games, scored a few goals in injury-time, showed that mentality. We’ve not really set the world alight too many times. To win away at Anfield, you really need to be at your best level.”
There’s been a lot said in the last few days about players’ celebrations - what have you said to your players? I’m just thinking is it likely that if, for instance, you scored the winner in the last minute, that you could just not celebrate that?
“I think we all know the situation that we’re in. We all know to keep to the guidelines and keep to the rules. I can’t promise anything, but of course, if the players can control themselves that’s the best now. Then again, football is about the passion and instant moments. Then again, you’ve seen loads of players when they score against their former clubs, for example, can control their emotions. I can’t say anything but that we’ve spoken about it: our responsibilities and our duties, that we are role models, that we are going to do our best if get the chance to celebrate. Let’s hope we get one.”
“I’m going to give everyone a chance, another day. Anthony is not out of it. I think the only ones that are certainly out it are Brandon [Williams] and Phil Jones. They are the two that definitely cannot make the game. A couple of others may be doubts, but we’re hoping - fingers crossed.”
The mentality, how does it change from being the team behind chasing, to the team that everyone else is chasing. Does that mentality switch when you’re a manager or a player, and do you have confidence in your group that they can sustain that sort of momentum that they have built up?
“Well, for me, I’d rather be on top and have the points than chasing, But we are the challengers, we are the hunters; we are chasing the champions because it’s over the course of a long season. So they have the rights and they have the cup, they are the champions. They are the ones that everyone would like to beat and my players are the same, I think. We are playing against the team that were the best in England last season. The’ve been incredible at home, so our mentality and mindset will have to be… we need that extra edge. We have to be hungry, to fight for every single inch of grass on that pitch. Any little detail can decide one of these game. We definitely haven’t thought that we are top and everyone is here to chase us.”
Sir Alex [Ferguson] used to talk about that one of the main the main obstacles to winning at Anfield was that atmosphere and the fans being on top of you. We all want fans back in the stadiums, but with them not being there on Sunday, does that remove one of the obstacles to winning at Anfield?
“I think football and the results in general have shown how important the fans are. We’ve not lost since we were at Anfield last time in the league - that’s a year. That’s a lot down to that the fans are not there, of course. It’s a just a pitch of green grass with white lines around, but it is not a home or away advantage. Of course, compared to a year ago and the times that you go to Anfield with a crowd, it’s a bit of an advantage this time compared to normal because to be at home with your fans is the best feeling for any player. It’s not just a cliche that you need your supporters.”