As Manchester United get set to take on Paris Saint-Germain in the Round of 16, Zach Lowy of Breaking The Lines chats to Bleacher Report journalist Rob Blanchette on how Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has reinvigorated United since taking over in December, and whether they can advance past the defending French champions.
ZL: If you had told me when the draw came out in December, that United would even have a shot against PSG, I would have smacked you. Back then, United were more towards mid-table than top four, and PSG on the other hand, had not drawn a single game in the league. What are your thoughts going into this game?
RB: We’re all really excited. A few weeks ago, none of us had any expectations about this fixture at all. We expected to get knocked out, we were in a really bad place under Mourinho, and as everybody knows, that’s come full circle with Ole. We’re still very focused on the league, top four is where all United fans want to be at this stage, but we’re going in with an open mind. No Neymar, no Cavani, we’ll take our chances.
ZL: When was the last time you were this excited for a game? I think a lot of people would say 2013 against Real Madrid.
RB: Champions League nights are always special anyway, and the Real Madrid game was really exciting, also we had the Bayern Munich match as well, the first leg of that under Moyes, but I think we’ve been starved of these nights. You kind of always forget about them, and the games against Liverpool and City, all of those games are always very special.
PSG are not really on our wavelength in terms of rivalries. Obviously, we’re aware that they’re a big club and have got some great players, but as you said, they were unbeaten a few weeks ago and we were awful. We’re at that stage now where we feel we’ve got our game together and we can keep everyone fit and we can put out our first team tomorrow night. We feel like we can do the job.
ZL: Did you expect such a rapid turnaround in form?
RB: No, I don’t think anyone did. We were delighted that José had gone, we went for a really bad period under him that divided the fanbase, but no one expected any kind of revival. I think this season, we just thought we would tick along in mediocrity, but we’ve somehow managed to salvage something, and the fact that we’re even here talking about possibly beating PSG and possibly being in the top four is somehow a football miracle in itself.
ZL: Before Christmas, when Solskjaer took over, there’s been one game where you haven’t won (Burnley). What are the key changes that Solskjaer has done?
RB: He’s made lots of tactical changes, and we’ve talked a lot about this in our writing and on Twitter and on various social media platforms. The first big thing is that he’s taken us into a 4-3-3 formation, which we’ve written for years is our best formation with this squad. It was a formation that Mourinho didn’t like to play because it does leave us that little bit more exposed in defense, but we always felt that if United did play a positive system with the players that we have, that we can go and win games.
The fact that Ole has proved that in a very short period of time just by setting his team up how it should be, rather than to the philosophy and the ideal of a man who is a little bit behind the times now. I think Ole, overall, he’s sorted out the formation and he’s given players the license and freedom to go out there and express themselves. When you look at Paul Pogba, he’s the most obvious one: when you look at the attributes he has, that he’s now allowed to go out there and create magic, and at the moment, he’s probably the best central midfielder in Europe the way he’s playing.
We’re delighted with the way that Ole’s changed things and brought a smile to everyone’s face because we were so miserable under José and it was a constant battle to try and find positives under him. I backed José from the beginning, I was happy that he got the job originally, but there’s no doubt we came to a natural conclusion with him.
ZL: We have this obsession about attacking midfielders, Özil, Isco, James, we pigeon-hole them into a certain role and designation. A lot of people have said United needs an attacking midfielder, but they have one in Paul Pogba. It’s funny, going back two years, Mourinho was talking about playing Pogba in a center back role, but he can go blow for blow with the best attacking midfielders in football.
RB: And of course, don’t forget, we had Paul Pogba when he was 15. We know all about Paul Pogba, we knew about him as a kid, we knew about what he was as a child and what he did as he came through our academy. To bring Pogba back to the club for a world record fee, he was only ever going to be an attacking midfielder. But for Mourinho, in terms of the holistic value of his squad, he felt he needed a defensive midfielder, and that’s what he tried to do with Paul over the last 18 months. It didn’t work, it hasn’t worked at any point, and we were all fairly despondent that that’s what we were seeing at Old Trafford every week.
The fact that Mourinho didn’t really get that and try something different, we got to that stage with Paul where he just had to be either sold and allowed to go and take his career somewhere else and play at Barcelona or back at Juventus or Real Madrid, or we change something systematic at our football club, and that was obviously José Mourinho leaving.
ZL: Does the success of Zidane at Madrid give you hope that this can be a long-term bridge to success?
RB: I don’t think we compare it. Zidane, a bit like Solskjaer, came through as a reserve team coach at Real Madrid, Ole did the same at United. The blueprint is there, but this is quite a unique situation. Real Madrid have a high turnover of managers anyway, so every two or three years, you’re expecting someone new to come in. Obviously, Zidane won three European Cups, it wasn’t enough for them, but at United, there’s a little more of a holistic feel.
Globally, we’re such a massive football club, but we still look at ourselves as a family football club. Behind the scenes, a lot of people who worked there under Sir Alex Ferguson are still there at the club, and I think Ole’s joined the dots together. He’s given faith to the people who were there, brought back Mike Phelan, that was a big masterstroke, someone who knows the football club really well.
We’ve gone from looking at two or three or four different managers, we’re now at a situation that if Ole carries on as he is, then it would be very difficult to not give him the job.
ZL: Do you think there’s some bitterness from certain people from the Class of ’92 who did not get positions at the club?
RB: No, not at all. I was speaking to Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes quite recently and we were chatting about these things. They’re United fans. They want to see United do well. We’re all like that, we work in different industries, obviously they played from the club and we’re just writers and fans and people who are around the football team, but we all just want the same thing. We want to see United perform every week, we want to see the style of football that we were all brought up on.
We were all very lucky that we were there at the beginning of the Ferguson era as kids, and that’s what we’ve known for 20, 30 years. That’s what we look towards. I think you can compare it to other American franchises as well. The Boston Celtics, there’s a history there and an expectation and a blueprint. Manchester United, we feel that more than clubs like Real Madrid do.
Barcelona are similar to us, they have a blueprint, Ajax are similar to us, but when you look at Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid, Chelsea, these are clubs that have spent a lot of money over the years. Real Madrid, we know, have the history as well, but they are very much a purchasing football club. The other clubs just mentioned have not taken that as their first step in terms of success.
ZL: And they don’t have the history that United do.
RB: Of course, that’s something we’re proud of, and we want to hang on to those ethics that we had. When José came, we were prepared to compromise, but I think we’ve learned our lesson quite harshly, that we need to stick to our guns and play a certain brand of football.
ZL: Going back to sticking to your guns, I saw a comment from Solskjaer that was very interesting, along the lines of “United needs to stop these superstar signings and get back to basics.” Do you think Solskjaer’s trying to make United get back to their ways under Ferguson?
RB: I think he’s looking at the blueprint of the football club. With Ferguson and through the ’90s, superstars didn’t come to this country. The top players either went to Real Madrid or Barcelona or the Italian clubs, and it was harder to attract the top talent. You would bring in someone like Eric Cantona who wasn’t wanted in France, wasn’t wanted in the continent, and came to England and made his name and became a superstar here.
That’s one of the United catchphrases: we don’t buy superstars, we make superstars. I think that’s always been the way of bringing our own players through. We look at Marcus Rashford, he’s part of that history and blueprint of a young Mancunian lad that we’ve taken through the system, Jesse Lingard’s the same. You look at players like Anthony Martial who we did spend a lot of money on, £50 million, but he also feels like one of our own.
I think that’s what Solskjaer is speaking out: bringing in those players that know what United are about. Paul Pogba came back to United because he knows what Manchester United is about. He could’ve gone to Real Madrid, he could’ve gone to Barcelona, he had the choice to go to those clubs, but he came back to United because he felt he had unfinished business there.
I don’t think it will stop United from signing superstars, it didn’t stop Ferguson. We had this history, but when we needed a big player, we went and bought him. We wanted Wayne Rooney, we spent £30 million on him at the time, which was huge. We needed a defender, we went and bought Rio Ferdinand for a record fee. United have always bought players and spent a lot of money, but Ole’s right: we need to look at our own system and how we actually produce players, that’s probably more important than just spending money.
ZL: Maybe that means instead of spending £60 million on Aaron Wan-Bissaka, go out and promote Ethan Laird from the academy.
RB: Exactly. If you’re going to buy someone like Wan-Bissaka, great young talent, but he’ll cost you a lot of money. Do you look at your academy and find the players from within, or do you go and spend money? Look at Luke Shaw, he had a great first season at Southampton, he’s found it hard at United, but when you spend that kind of money on a player who’s a young player, it’s good to give them time in the squad and let them come through naturally.
I think he’s talking more along the lines of Neymar and Mbappé…Mbappé for £100 million as a 19-year-old, that’s not going to happen at Man United at the moment.
ZL: In that case, we can discount the Harry Kane and Mauro Icardi possibilities and assume that United will stick with Rashford and Lukaku?
RB: No, I wouldn’t discount any of that. Manchester United, they like to pull a punch and they like to prove a point, and this is what they’ve always done over the years. We have this philosophy, this set way of producing a squad that wins championships.
If Harry Kane becomes available, and he’s available for £200 million, and Manchester United know that they can sell 100 million shirts with his name on it, they’ll buy him. You don’t have to be Real Madrid and buy every player in your squad for £50 million upwards, you can have that balance, and I think United should be that kind of football where we have players that we do bring in when we need them, but we also produce other players as well.
ZL: What are certain positions that United need to spend big on?
RB: The first position has to be center back. We know that that is a problem. We’ve got about seven center backs at the football who are all average or okay, I think Lindelöf’s done really well in the past six months, he’s come a long way from where he was when he started at the club.
There are two or three or four primary center backs in Europe, in world football where, if you get one of them, then you take your team to the next level. Look at what Liverpool did with Van Dijk: they took him from Southampton, they paid an incredible amount of money for him, and they went from a team that was floating around the Champions League places to now being properly competitive for trophies. I think that’s where United are. If we brought in a center back at that top level, we could compete quite quickly.
ZL: Like Kalidou Koulibaly perhaps?
RB: Absolutely, he’s the one, he’s my favorite in terms of targets, and yeah, he will cost £100, £120 million. When we bought Rio Ferdinand, we bought him from Leeds United, I think we paid £32 million at the time, and that was a world record fee for a defender for about 10 years, defenders didn’t cost that kind of money for a long time. He worked out quite well.
If you find a player who is elite and top level, he’s fantastic, and I think what he’s done at Napoli is wonderful, and if he was at United next season, we’d be delighted.
ZL: What are some of your qualms with the others such as Eric Bailly? What do you think they’re lacking for United to take the next step?
RB: Bailly, as brave as he is, he’s a brave footballer, the Premier League has turned into a real animal of a league in terms of what you need as attributes to do the job. You can’t get away with just being strong, you have to be the height of intelligence, you have to be at the top level in terms of skill, you have to be able to pass the ball out from the back now whereas in the old days you didn’t have to do that, you could just boot the ball 50, 60 yards and be happy with it. With Bailly, that’s been his issue.
With Marcos Rojo, he’s a good player but he’s not world class. Phil Jones is Phil Jones, Smalling is Smalling, those players will do their roles in the squad, but if you want to really progress, you need to bring in that world class center back, and I think from there on, United have got the pieces across the pitch to do the job.
There will be other additions, but the first one is definitely center back. But also holding onto the pieces we have–we must hold onto De Gea, we must hold onto Rashford, we must hold onto Pogba, we’ve given Martial a huge new deal, and United are doing the right things at the moment by giving out new contracts at this stage. When things are going well, give out the contracts, make people happy, when they’re happy, they play better football.
I think things are in the right direction at the moment, whereas only six months ago, they were the complete opposite.
ZL: Is there anything that worries you going into this decisive clash against PSG?
RB: No, not at all. If we get beaten, then we get beaten because PSG are a team that spend hundreds of millions of pounds on their team, and we are a team that’s in transition. We admit that, that’s not something we are blind to, but we also feel we can go into this game and cause a little bit of a shock. Now that we’ve had this run of wins under Ole, people are a bit more expectant, but overall, United fans are a bit cool about it.
We know that we’re coming from a bad place in the last few months, and we’re just happy to be here, to be in this situation where we can cause a shock and maybe even go on further. Without Neymar, they are hugely under strength, and it will be about defense, it will be about whose defense buckles first. Our defense is not very good, Meunier is out for them, so they’re going to be under strength as well. It will be about which teams go for the throat, and I can tell you we will go for the throat.