Fulham’s most recent trip to Old Trafford was in 2018 – Jose Mourinho’s final home game in charge of Manchester United. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer recalls it well. “I watched it on the telly,” he tells Sky Sports. “It was 4-1. Juan (Mata) did a nice corner routine.”
Two relegations and a promotion have followed for Fulham in the two-and-a-half years since, but Solskjaer has had his ups and downs too. The biggest high could be just days away.
Manchester United need one more win to secure second spot in the Premier League table, but Solskjaer knows the biggest game of his managerial career so far is looming.
The Europa League final against Villarreal on May 26 offers the opportunity for him to win his first major trophy as Manchester United manager and the club’s first in four years.
“Of course, it is in the back of our minds.”
Before that, the job is to restore confidence after back-to-back home defeats. That chance comes against Scott Parker’s already-relegated side on Tuesday evening when United will play in front of 10,000 supporters for the first time at Old Trafford in over a year.
For Solskjaer, the fans’ absence has been evident in the results. While United are unbeaten in away games in the Premier League, they have picked up 10 points fewer at home.
“I think we have been the team that have missed our fans the most. Books will be written about this pandemic and they will show all the stats. It will be interesting to read it. But we already have a sense of how much fans have been missed by how the results have been skewed. It is unheard of to have more wins away than at home.
“When you have 76,000 at Old Trafford, it is an absolutely magical place and when you play well that adrenaline, enthusiasm and excitement, that extra bit that they give you, they suck the ball in at the Stretford End. So many times we have had help from the fans.
“Of course, 10,000 is not 76,000 but it is still a large number cheering us on and it will help a lot.”
Exactly what team he will select is unclear.
Rest has been the priority. The players were given Friday and Saturday off. “We felt they deserved a couple of days away from each other,” says Solskjaer. “They have recuperated well. It seems to have at least given them their energy and enthusiasm back.”
The sort of changes seen against Leicester are likely to wait for the visit to Wolves on the final day of the Premier League season given that United play the final in Gdansk only three days after that. Against Fulham, the focus will be on building some rhythm again.
“We need to get our confidence up and we need points to secure the second place that we have been in for a long time now. We do not want to waste that chance. On the other hand, you need energy and enthusiasm for the final and you do not want injuries.
“The players who are picked just need to focus on their performance. If you have your mind on the final, I can guarantee the performance will be poor against Fulham. Our focus has to be on performing well. If there is a good performance, there is usually a good result.
“It is not about the tactical stuff. We have done that work all year. Everybody knows what we want as a team. It is about performing on the day. We have got to build momentum, perform well going into the final, be confident, while managing the energy resources.”
Harry Maguire is still hoping to be fit for the final but Solskjaer is aware that he must use these final two Premier League games to develop a better understanding than United have shown without him so far. Two conceded against Leicester. Four against Liverpool.
After Maguire’s run of 72 consecutive Premier League appearances for the club following his arrival in the summer of 2019, it has been some adjustment. Include the five winless games that concluded the season prior to his arrival and it is no wins in seven without him.
“Harry has been very important for us. He has been an ever present pretty much so he is a big miss. But that is football. We have just got to make the most of it. Every team have had players out for different reasons. It is a chance to get better again.”
The suspicion is that while Victor Lindelof has enjoyed a good season alongside Maguire and Eric Bailly could have come in and thrived alongside the captain, neither is quite so comfortable in the senior role. There is a need for somebody to step up in his absence.
“It is a different dynamic, of course. Harry is the captain. He is the leader of the group. He has been the one taking charge off the pitch as well. Now his time is focused more on recovering and trying to get back for the final. But Victor is vocal. Eric has come in and is finding his feet. Of course, the more he plays, the better he will be as well.
“We have not had great results in the last couple but these players have been training together all year. We want to step it up and get momentum going. Get the confidence back, get a feeling going into the last game of the season with a team that is gelled together.”
These have been the themes of Solskjaer’s entire reign. Restoring confidence. Improving cohesion. But a glance at that line-up against Fulham just weeks before he took the job reveals the true scale of the overhaul that he has overseen at Old Trafford.
The team that day included a back four of Diogo Dalot, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Ashley Young. Ander Herrera and Jesse Lingard were in midfield. Romelu Lukaku was up front.
Do not underestimate the transformation.
“Every manager has their own focus and priorities,” says Solskjaer. “Those players are top players, top professionals. You can look at them and wish them all the best. But I made a decision, together with the club, that I wanted to have a different team.
“I am not the one to talk about the evolution and compare one team to another. The proof is in the results. That is the only way we can convince the fans that we are doing the right thing. But, for me, the team now is looking more like a team that I feel responsible for.”
He would take a repeat of the 4-1 win, though.
“You saw the creativity and imagination in that game. If we can get that creativity and imagination but with the pressing that I felt we lacked at that time, then I will be happy.”