As Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wrapped up his pre-match press conference for Thursday’s game against Tottenham in Shanghai, he looked down the top table at a young interpreter who had just finished translating his final answer for the Chinese media. ‘I can’t confirm what she said is right, but I think she deserves a round of applause,’ said the Manchester United manager.
His audience obliged and Solskjaer smiled as he headed for the searing heat and humidity of the training pitch at the Yuanshen Sports Center, joking with his former teammate Wes Brown on the way out.
It has been a familiar scene on United’s tour of Perth, Singapore and Shanghai this summer and one that could not be more different from the tone set by a miserable and moody Jose Mourinho in the US a year ago. It left Mourinho at odds with his employers and triggered a chain of events that led to his sacking in December.
Solskjaer, on the other hand, hopes that United’s performances out here – they have beaten Perth Glory, Leeds United and Inter Milan without conceding a goal ahead of the Spurs game – will put them in much better shape for the new season. As United prepare to head home, Sportsmail takes a look at two very contrasting tours.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has set a tone of optimism on Manchester United’s pre-season tour
One high-ranking United official described Mourinho’s demise at United as ‘death by a thousand cuts’. In the end, he had done so much to get himself sacked that he simply had to go.
There is little doubt that the deepest cut was inflicted on last summer’s tour of the US and an extraordinary day in Michigan after United were thrashed 4-1 by Liverpool in the Big House.
In a vicious post-match attack, Mourinho claimed fans would be better off staying away from such a meaningless friendly, criticised the club over a lack of new signings and moaned about the number of first-team players available to him after the World Cup.
United’s torrid pre-season last year was encapsulated by their 4-1 drubbing against Liverpool
Crucially, Mourinho snubbed the young players who had played alongside star turn Alexis Sanchez. ‘Do you want him to be happy with the players he has around him?’ At a club like United, so proud of their youth development, that was seen as unforgiveable.
A sour Mourinho had already set himself on collision with Paul Pogba in LA after refusing to praise the Frenchman for winning the World Cup, choosing instead to remind him that he now needed to give the same effort and focus for United. It was typical of his negative mind-set.
Even though United had granted Mourinho’s wish to visit the US for a second year in a row and base themselves in Beverly Hills, it still wasn’t enough. The Portuguese coach cut a miserable figure throughout on a joyless trip that set the tone for the next six months.
Having arranged for everyone to stay at the Beverly Wilshire the previous summer, Mourinho’s coaching team and the players booked into The Montage while other staff stayed at the Marriott.
Mourinho made players feel uncomfortable and wouldn’t allow them to enjoy their spare time
They were worried about socialising at night in case Mourinho spotted them in a bar on one of his nightly strolls. When he spoke to them next morning, they realised that he would stand closer than normal to see if he could smell alcohol on their breath.
By the time the tour had staggered on from Michigan to Miami, a despondent Mourinho had reached breaking point. ‘This is s**t!’ he could be heard shouting into his mobile phone during one conversation in the lobby of the St Regis Bal Harbour hotel.
Fast forward 12 months and it is an infinitely happier United camp. Solskjaer hasn’t got all the new signings he wants either, but the Norwegian has taken it in much better heart than his predecessor.
‘I’ve not had a frustrated feeling at all,’ he said on Wednesday ahead of the Spurs game. ‘We’ve got to be patient. I believe in these players and I’m sure we could do well.’
Solskjaer hasn’t got all the players he wanted this summer but he believes in their current crop
For United, Solskjaer is the polar opposite to Mourinho; a club man who will never rock the boat. There is no guarantee of success, of course, but the toxic atmosphere that engulfed United a year ago is long gone.
The new manager is far from lacking in discipline but has allowed his players to socialise more on tour. At Nobu, in Perth, a team night out saw Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Dan James and Scott McTominay stand on a chair and sing in front of their teammates as part of an initiation ceremony. On a day off, some players went shopping while Pogba and Victor Lindelof visited Cottesloe Beach.
Staff could be seen at night enjoying themselves into the early hours at the casino attached to their luxury Crown hotel. Solskjaer and his coaching staff – Mike Phelan, Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna – have created a sense of unity that is in stark contrast to last summer.
This tour has not been without its issues. When United flew to Perth from Manchester on their luxury 88-seater jet earlier this month, there was genuine concern that Pogba would not report for duty after agitating for a move and telling teammates that he would stay away.
However, the Frenchman duly turned up and a situation that had the makings of a major drama has largely disappeared despite the best efforts of his agent Mino Raiola. Pogba seems to have accepted that he is staying and has played well in each of the first three games.
Romelu Lukaku, on the other hand, has yet to feature due to an ankle injury that has coincided with negotiations over a move to Inter Milan. Solskjaer, however, has taken Lukaku’s absence in his stride even though it would better for both sides to have his future resolved as soon as possible.
United feared Paul Pogba wouldn’t turn up but midfielder duly reported for pre-season duty
Pogba appears to have accepted he will stay at United and has played well in their games
The other problem to hit United on this tour was the health scare that led to first-team coach Mark Dempsey being hospitalised in Perth. The issue was handled swiftly and sensitively by United who arranged for Dempsey to return home.
Solskjaer’s positive approach could not be more different to Mourinho who appeared to be spoiling for a fight at every opportunity in the US. None more so than over Anthony Martial leaving camp to be at the birth of his second child in Paris.
The two men were already at odds after Mourinho made it quite clear that he wanted to sell the Frenchman against the wishes of his board. He was furious over Martial’s flit to France, and an issue that could have been dealt with more privately threatened to spiral out of control.
The manager was already unhappy over the absence of so many first-team players, and that was only made worse when Sanchez was unable to fly out with the rest of the squad at the beginning of the tour due to a visa problem.
Despite Solskjaer’s easy-going nature off the pitch, the training regime United’s players have been subjected to is tougher than anything they experienced under Mourinho.
There were 14 double sessions over nine days during the main training camp in Perth. High-intensity runs are up 50 per cent to try and prepare the squad for a high-pressing game. Overall distance covered has increased 10 per cent. Solskjaer was surprised by the players’ lack of conditioning when he replaced Mourinho who in turn blamed his fitness coach Stefano Rapetti.
United haven’t been able to train with the same intensity in the heat of Singapore and Shanghai since moving on from Perth, but there have been no complaints. Compare that to Mourinho’s mood when the club toured China during his first pre-season in 2016.
When his pre-conference in Shanghai had to be moved outside due to the stifling heat in the building, the new United boss sulked by the side of the pitch and had to be persuaded to come over and speak to the waiting media.
It was the shape of things to come as Mourinho made no secret of what he thought about the facilities in China – and that was even before the Manchester derby in Beijing was cancelled over the state of the pitch.
No-one gets too carried away with pre-season games. They are rarely a good indication of what will happen once the real business gets underway. But the ominous signs on tour last summer proved an accurate gauge of what was to follow.
After underwhelming draws with Club America in Phoenix and San Jose Earthquakes, an under-strength United beat AC Milan 9-8 on penalties in LA and finished off with an encouraging 2-1 win over Real Madrid. But that 4-1 defeat to Liverpool in Michigan inflicted serious damage on and off the pitch.
This summer, it has been relatively straightforward so far. United have won all three games, beating Perth Glory 2-0, Leeds 4-0 and Inter Milan 1-0, as they prepare to face Spurs. Solskjaer has the benefit of a virtually full squad and two new signings in Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Dan James, while the emergence of teenage striker Mason Greenwood has been the biggest plus of all.
Last season’s collapse after such a promising start under the former Cardiff manager is still fresh in the memory, and it would be fair to say the jury is still out on Solskjaer. But at least United head home in a positive frame of mind this time.