Ole Gunnar Solskjaer usually has his guard up when the subject of Erling Haaland is raised, but when the whole world is talking about one of your former players, what’s the harm in adding your voice to the chorus?
“When you’ve had kids through as a coach you follow them, of course,” the Manchester United manager said of Haaland, who scored 20 goals in 50 games for Solskjaer’s Molde before they both left Norwegian football and went their separate ways.
“I keep in touch with Erling. It’s great to see him become the player he has become and I know he’ll work to improve all the time. He’s a Dortmund player and we wish him well there. Let’s see what life will bring later on.”
It was, in fairness to Solskjaer, not a million miles away from what he has previously said about his one-time protege.
Only two weeks ago, he told Norwegian media that he is following Haaland’s career with interest. That he knows the Haaland family is no secret, either.
This, though, was a more direct admission that he and Haaland remain in contact, while the “let’s see” pay-off was the clearest public indication yet of United’s abiding interest in a player who they were chasing in late 2019.
Solskjaer answered three questions on Haaland in total – more than on Real Sociedad, Thursday night’s opponents in a Europa League dead rubber – and even the stock answers hinted at the possibility of a future move.
After being asked about the previous pursuit and reiterating that it is not for him to speak about players at other clubs, Solskjaer himself asked: “Who wasn’t interested in him a year ago?
“Everyone would say you’d take the best players in the world and Erling is a top player,” he added.
That line echoed Mino Raiola, Haaland’s agent, who said earlier this week that there is not a manager or sporting director in the world who would deny an interest in his client.
“It’s like saying: ‘Is there a Formula 1 team who would not be interested in having Lewis Hamilton?’”, he told BBC Sport.
Raiola added that only 10 clubs in world football can afford Haaland and that four of those potential suitors play in the Premier League. He did not name names but United, of course, are one of them.
And as Raiola says, that Solskjaer is monitoring one of the most sought-after young properties in the game should come as no surprise. Whether Haaland would be interested in moving to United is the flip side of that coin and a different question entirely.
In any case, the real significance of Solskjaer’s comments may be a recognition that a centre-forward is quickly becoming a key position in United’s next recruitment drive.
Anthony Martial began the campaign as United’s undisputed first choice No 9 following an impressive run of form during Project Restart but has scored the same number of goals as Scott McTominay in the time since.
There are some mitigating circumstances – a cheap and contentious sending off against Tottenham scuppered the chance of any early momentum – but seven goals in 31 appearances is not a flattering record.
Martial’s biggest problem may be Edinson Cavani, who despite being 34 years old has shown superior movement and off-the-ball intelligence both in and out of possession when playing as United’s focal point, to the extent that he is now the preferred option.
United are expected to extend Cavani’s stay into a second year and, given all the scepticism which met news of his signing back in October, it is only fair to point out that it has so far been a success. Cavani is not a long-term option, though.
That may be Mason Greenwood, who has always looked more suited to a central role rather than one out on the right, but Solskjaer spoke last week of giving the youngster time “to find his final position” and talked him up as a player who could play anywhere in the forward line.
There is currently no one, long-term, established centre-forward option at Old Trafford. Haaland would be that player, but United will have key decisions to make up front sooner or later, whether Solskjaer can tempt his former protege to Manchester or not.