May 15, 2021

Man Utd

News

How Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer transformed Erling Haaland

6 min read

Before the pandemic, schoolchildren by the busload still arrived at The Cliff on Lower Broughton Road. The pandemic has halted activity at Manchester United’s fabled former training ground, but if the neighbours glanced over the wall last Tuesday morning they would have seen sculpted athletes in hazardous yellow tracksuits tops pounding the turf.

United were happy to accommodate Borussia Dortmund on the morning of their Champions League tie with Manchester City, building bridges after they were almost burnt during the Jadon Sancho saga last summer. United have a different priority in the transfer market but he also plays for Dortmund.

Erling Haaland, his blond locks tensed by an Alice band, was the first Norwegian visitor to The Cliff since his old manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, bemused the United players with a nostalgic trip to his old stomping ground on the morning of the April 2019 derby. It had little impact as United still lost.

Photographers were tipped off about Dortmund’s visit too late, unable to capture Haaland with either of the words ‘Manchester United Football Club’ arched over the two crests that rest above the entrance, or with the Duncan Edwards mosaic that visitors admire. Dortmund carefully omitted Haaland from their candid captures.



United's old training ground, The Cliff
United’s old training ground, The Cliff

It was on the Cliff’s pitches that the ghost of Haaland’s father, Alf-Inge, lingered as Roy Keane rehabilitated from an anterior cruciate ligament injury in 1997-98. Haaland was not yet one when Keane exacted revenge and stood over his prone father in April 2001 and that had no bearing on his eventual decision to plump for Dortmund over United in the winter of 2019.

A photograph of Solskjaer avuncularly resting his hand on Haaland’s shoulder, dated January 31, is still viewable on the Dortmund striker’s Instagram page, the blue love heart emoji signalling Haaland’s commitment to the colours of Molde. Solskjaer managed Haaland for the best part of two years and described the intensely focused 16-year-old as ‘scary’ upon his arrival from Bryne in 2017.

“They were very close,” says Arilas Ouuld-Sada, the chief football writer for Norwegian newspaper VG. “As a former striker, Solskjær was in many ways a mentor for Erling, teaching him how to move in the box, how to finish, how to look for weaknesses in the opponents when waiting to come on from the bench.

“I remember covering one of Erling’s breakthrough games for Molde in 2017, when he scored the winning goal against Viking. After the game, Solskjær put his arm around his shoulder and had a long chat.

“He later told me that he said ‘well done’ but focused on the chances Haaland had missed. In the same game, Erling was in the midst of a controversy as he celebrated his goal shushing the Viking fans (rivals of Haaland’s hometown club Bryne). While others criticised his attitude, Solskjær defended him in public.”

“It was just natural that a great talent like Erling would move to Molde,” says the former Norway striker Jan-Aage Fjortoft. “As many Norwegian talents had done before him. I think it was very inspiring for all talents to work closely with Ole Gunnar, because of what he had achieved as a player, but also because that success was based on hard work and great attitude.

“It was also no disadvantage that Ole Gunnar was one of the best finishers around and strikers like Erling could learn from his experience every day.”

Haaland debuted for Molde aged 16, scoring an unspectacular four goals in his first 20 appearances. Haaland went viral with a goal-glut at Brann in July 2018, when he pillaged four goals in the first 21 minutes in the presence of United’s Norwegian scout Tommy Moller Nielsen.

Ironically, Solskjaer compared Haaland to Romelu Lukaku, a striker he marginalised during his first six months as United manager. “He reminds me of the type of striker Lukaku is,” Solskjaer remarked. “There is a lot of interest in him.”

“Before that, he had had a promising first season, but a very difficult start to his second season,” Ouuld-Sada recalls. “He had scored twice in 12 games. The day before the Brann game, Solskjær took him aside after training and had a long discussion with him. He clearly got his message across because after that his career took off.”

“That was an eye-opener for a lot of us,” Fjortoft adds of the Brann breakthrough. “We saw in a game that this boy was something special. That made him a household name in Norwegian football and his name was on the list of many scouts, although you could also see glimpses of his talent playing for the Norway youth teams.

“Erling’s approach to the game is so fresh in all kinds of ways. I am so impressed by the impact Lukaku has had in Italy, but for me Erling has a bigger potential.

“His physical attributes are there for all to see. But his timing of runs, his attitude, his will to improve is second to none.”

Solskjaer is reticent during his press briefings as United manager but was more open at modest Molde when bigger clubs courted Haaland. Solskjaer knew it was impossible to keep Haaland beyond 2018 and revealed Molde had rejected an offer from a Champions League-winning club, believed to be Juventus.

Red Bull Salzburg approached Molde with a more agreeable package and Haaland signed a pre-contract agreement in July of 2018, clarifying he owed Molde ‘a lot’.

A reunion 18 months later between master and apprentice appeared likely. United were optimistic of concluding a winter window deal with Salzburg for Haaland, his release clause a knockdown €20million heading into 2020.

Solskjaer flew to meet Haaland’s representatives in December 2019 days after Marcel Bout, United’s head of global scouting, had watched Haaland in the flesh against Liverpool. When Solskjaer was asked about Haaland in a post-match press conference, his comments were ambiguous but the body language, embellished by a smirk, was bullish.



Haaland played for Salzburg for the last time in December 2019
Haaland played for Salzburg for the last time in December 2019

“He knows what he wants to do and he knows what he’s going to do. So I don’t have to give any advice to any other teams’ players.”

Back then, there was still some confusion over Haaland’s representation. His father was an adviser and Mino Raiola was reputed to have an involvement yet the evidence was scant. United naively dealt with Solskjaer’s representative, Jim Solbakken, who was involved in Haaland’s 2018 transfer from Molde to Salzburg.

That enraged Raiola, smarting from his failure to engineer a transfer for Paul Pogba in the summer, and Haaland soon appeared brandishing a Dortmund shirt, having signed a United one in his hometown of Bryne during the Christmas break.

Solskjaer is still in touch with Haaland as United weigh up entering the summer auction. “Erling has throughout his young career been a master in adjusting to new leagues,” Fjortoft explains. “New systems and new managers.

“Seventeen months ago, he didn’t say no to Man United and Solskjær, he said yes to Dortmund. His development and goals is a testimony of him making the right decision.”

If Haaland returns to Manchester it won’t be to The Cliff.

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