Ole Gunnar Solskjaer extracted every ounce of potential from himself as a player, earning the reputation of scoring big goals in the biggest of moments as his legendary status at Manchester United was forged in silverware.
Solskjaer’s attempt to replicate the success of his playing career from the Old Trafford dugout have produced unquestionable highs and seen the club’s fruitful resources flourish under his tutelage.
Yet for a club of Manchester United’s stature and the department where it matters most – trophies – Solskjaer’s tenure to date has been characterised by a series of near misses.
Failure to progress through his first four semi-finals as Manchester United manager has seen the club’s wait for silverware extend into a fourth year, a wait which grows more painful given the recent success of their two biggest rivals, Liverpool and Manchester City.
United’s next opportunity to get their hands on a trophy just so happens to be in the tournament which delivered their last, the Europa League, with Roma the opponents in the fifth semi-final of Solskjaer’s reign as he tries to deliver that elusive first final.
Whether it be the two League Cup semi-final defeats to City, the one to Chelsea in the FA Cup, or last term’s setback against Sevilla in the Europa League, United have found a way to stumble at the last hurdle. But for Solskjaer, it is those very experiences which he believes have equipped his side to make that crucial next step this time around.
“We’ve had the experience of those defeats,” the United boss exclusively told Sky Sports. “When you suffer defeats it’s never easy and it’s never easy to handle the setback.
“Last season we finished with a semi-final against Sevilla and we felt really down going into holidays with the last memory being a defeat.
“So the players are really focused, are determined, the attitude has been really good since we’ve come into the last-16/quarter-finals. We want to go all the way.”
‘First taste of success could be the catalyst’
Every side in football history started off on their road to greatness by navigating that first semi-final, reaching that first final, winning that first piece of silverware.
Manchester United have yet to hit those milestones under Solskjaer but he hopes overcoming those obstacles this season could act as a springboard for future success.
“Sometimes that first taste of victory is the catalyst for something better to come,” he added. “That’s what we’re striving for.
“We’re under no illusions, it is not going to be easy [in the Europa League], there are still three very good teams left in the tournament. We’ve got to play well to get to the final for a start, and then win a final.
“That’s what we’re going for. It’s been a relentless season, we’ve not had any let-up between games, but it is something we want to finish the season with.”
Before United’s two-legged European affair with Roma, the club’s Premier League campaign takes centre stage, with Burnley visiting Old Trafford on Super Sunday – live on Sky Sports.
Defeat at home against the Clarets in January 2020 represented a bitter low for United last season, as Solskjaer and his players were jeered from the field both at half-time and at full-time by the disgruntled Old Trafford faithful.
“The last three seasons Burnley have scored two goals when they’ve come to Old Trafford,” Solskjaer recalled.
“When we’ve played them at Turf Moor, we’ve not conceded many. We can’t give them chances and opportunities because we are at Old Trafford. Yes, we want to score goals, but Burnley will always make it hard for you and make you feel you are in a game.
“They have very experienced players, very good professionals – a few of whom I had in the reserves – are well organised and we know we have to start the game well.
“If you get them a one or two-goal lead, it’s not a given that you come back again. You have to fight and earn your right to get points against Burnley.”
Solskjaer out to put an end to slow starts
Solskjaer’s call for his players to perform from the first whistle comes against a backdrop of sluggish starts to games throughout the campaign.
United have gained a league-high 28 points from losing positions this season, a statistic which when viewed positively points to their ability to transform games, but, on the other hand, also shines a spotlight on their failure to start fast.
“Sometimes we’ve been criticised for starting slow and having to come back for being 1-0 down,” Solskjaer conceded.
“But at times there is a reason behind those stats, because we played on a Thursday night. Hopefully we fly out of the traps on Sunday, but sometimes it doesn’t work that way.”
Asked what tools he had at his disposal to ensure United started strong, Solskjaer explained: “We can obviously rotate players to have freshness of legs. But we have to look into every single little detail that can improve performances.
“Is it a mental one, with my approach, the team talks we have? It is a tactical one and how we approach the game? Is it a physical one, which is very important? Between games you have to recover, you have to look at the sleep and every single detail.
“Of course, being at Manchester United, we are blessed with facilities and the opportunities for players to use the staff around them, so they have been used thoroughly.”
Ole: Greenwood can go all the way
United will be hoping Mason Greenwood’s end-of-season surge continues as they look to consolidate second spot in the Premier League, and perhaps even apply a bit of pressure on runaway leaders Manchester City this weekend.
Greenwood became the first Manchester United teenager since Cristiano Ronaldo in 2003 to score and assist from the bench in Sunday’s victory at Tottenham, while two goals in his previous two Premier League games leave him a couple of goals shy of Wayne Rooney’s 15-goal haul for the club before his 20th birthday.
“Mason has physically matured, mentally matured, he’s tactically matured and, technically, we know how good he is anyway. He will score goals, no worries about that,” Solskjaer said.
“He’s learned from Edinson [Cavani], been under the spotlight more, scrutinised more, learned how to live up the expectation and standards of Manchester United and I think he has coped with the demands really well.
“He’s come through a difficult patch and worked so hard to improve his game. It’s lovely to see boys that really want to be better and get their rewards for hard work.”
Greenwood’s exploits from the bench at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium have further strengthened Solskjaer’s belief that he can go right to the very top, be that as a starter or, when required, as an impact player. It’s a role Solskjaer knows a thing or two about.
“He can go all the way,” he added. “That goal and assist was maybe Mason’s way of maybe telling me I should have started him! I’ve been in that situation myself.
“When you’re a sub, don’t let it get you down, just make sure you are a team player. If you play for 20 minutes, you have 20 minutes to make 90 minutes work. That is what Mason did on Sunday, hopefully he will produce the game against Burnley.”
How to follow Man Utd vs Burnley
Manchester United vs Burnley will be shown live Super Sunday on Sky Sports Premier League and Main Event from 3.30pm; kick-off 4pm.
Sky Sports customers can watch in-game clips in the live match blog on the Sky Sports website and app. Highlights will also be published on the Sky Sports digital platforms and the Sky Sports Football YouTube channel shortly after the final whistle.