It was around this time last month that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made a set of innocent comments that became surprisingly incendiary.
Before the Europa League trip to San Siro to play Milan, the Manchester United manager said that – shock horror – he was aiming to win his first piece of silverware since taking charge before the end of the season.
Solskjaer then added the caveat that a trophy – namely the Europa League or FA Cup, the two competitions United could realistically win at the time – would not necessarily be proof of progress on his watch.
In his opinion, the week-in-week-out of a 38-game league season is a better barometer of how well things are going at any particular club than the success or failure in the unpredictable format of knockout football.
Solskjaer’s problem was that while United went on to beat Milan in Italy to reach the Europa League’s last eight, three days later a changed line-up played poorly at the King Power and lost to Leicester City in the FA Cup quarter-finals.
Then, somewhere along the way, those largely uncontroversial points he had made were mangled, mashed together and then misinterpreted by some as though Solskjaer was saying that he does not believe winning trophies is important.
Without wanting to relitigate the whole debate, it is worth revisiting his comments now that the dust has settled, and particularly now that United have beaten Granada to go one step further in the Europa League and reach the last four.
“Of course we’re all aiming to win trophies at this club,” Solskjaer began at the time, “but as we’ve said, sometimes a trophy can hide the other facts of what’s happening at the club. It’s in the league position you see if you’re progressing, really.
“Sometimes in cup tournaments you might be lucky, you might be unlucky. Draws, games can be decided on different factors. But of course we’re aiming to win. That’s why you play football. We’re always aiming to win trophies.”
Solskjaer returned to the same theme later, in response to a separate question. “It’s in the league position you see if there’s any progress, for me,” he reiterated.
“That’s always the bread and butter of the season, that you see how capable you are of coping with ups and downs. Any cup competition can give you a trophy, but sometimes it’s more of an ego thing for managers and clubs to finally win something.
“We need to see progress and, if we perform well enough, the trophies will end up at the club again. But it’s not like a trophy will say that ‘we’re back’, no. It’s the gradual progression and consistency of being in and around the top of the league and the odd trophies. Sometimes a cup competition can hide the fact you’re still struggling a little bit.”
At no point did he claim that winning trophies like the Europa League and FA Cup is not important, or that they cannot be a catalyst for further success in the future, or that they can never be an indication that the winning team in question is on the right tracks.
His point was that winning silverware is not always a sign of pure, unwavering progress. It can be a good measure but not the best, in his opinion. And sometimes, trophies mask a host of other issues bubbling underneath. Essentially, you can take one step forward then two steps back. Though the United manager would never say it, a couple of his predecessors at Old Trafford provide a compelling case in point.
But this time around, United can point to genuine progress. Solskjaer made those remarks at a time when qualification for next season’s Champions League was in the balance. Though a top-four finish is yet to be confirmed, they now sit nine points clear of fifth-place Chelsea and look set to meet the minimum expectations set out at the start of this season.
You might think that affords Solskjaer the breathing room to focus his energy on trophies and winning the Europa League, but for a manager who supposedly does not care for the competition, he was already taking it extremely seriously and has rarely fielded a weakened team since entering in February.
On Thursday night against Granada, despite United starting two away goals ahead and increasing their lead after only six minutes, Bruno Fernandes played the majority.
Paul Pogba would have stayed on longer if not for an early yellow card, and even keeping him on until half-time felt like an unnecessary risk. Marcus Rashford, meanwhile, was named on the substitutes bench despite missing training due to injury, just in case he was needed in an emergency.
These are hardly the decisions of someone who is passing up an opportunity to add to Old Trafford’s trophy cabinet. Solskjaer is a football romantic who would love nothing more than to taste glory with United as a manager having already done so as a player.
With a Champions League spot looking likely, this run to the Europa League semi-finals provides him with an opportunity to do that and to demonstrate that, in some quarters at least, his views on the importance of trophy-winning were slightly misunderstood.
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