As a former Manchester United manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has expressed his sympathies toward with Erik ten Hag as the Dutchman continues to oversee a particularly rocky start to the 2023-24 season.

United have lost three of their opening five Premier League games — their worst league start since 1989-90 — and the misery continued in Europe this week as their Champions League campaign began with a 4-3 defeat against Bayern Munich.

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No doubt even more galling for Solskjaer was the sight of Harry Kane on the scoresheet for Bayern, and the England captain was a player the Norwegian coach was extremely keen to sign for United long before he opted to move to the Bundesliga.

Speaking in an interview with The Athletic, Solskjaer begrudgingly admitted that because of emerging competition from a new wave of Premier League big spenders, United are no longer in a position to automatically attract the best players in the world. He also listed a number of high-profile targets he attempted but ultimately failed to sign during his managerial tenure at Old Trafford, including the likes of Kane, Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice.

Indeed, it was reported at the time that United failed to recruit any of Solskjaer’s marquee transfer targets in the summer window of 2020 and instead signed off on a series of slightly underwhelming deals for Donny van de Beek, Edinson Cavani, Alex Telles, Amad Diallo and Facundo Pellistri.

It’s all hypothetical of course — and staunch United fans might want to look away now — but here we have assembled what might have been the Red Devils’ current starting XI were Ole still at the wheel, and had all of his potential transfer targets been successfully landed.


Still without a club since being released by United over the summer, De Gea was Solskjaer’s unwavering first-choice goalkeeper during his three-year stint as head coach. There’s little doubt that the wiry Spaniard would still be in situ if Solskjaer was in charge.

It was widely reported that Solskjaer was eager to sign Trippier from Atletico Madrid in summer 2021 to strengthen United’s paper-thin right-back options. It was even said that Trippier had been looking at property in the area ahead of a move back to the Premier League, but alas it was Newcastle who managed to lure the England international homewards in a £12m deal the following January.

Solskjaer was apparently very keen to sign Upamecano in summer 2020 when the highly regarded France under-21 international moved into the final year of his contract at RB Leipzig. However, United saw their pursuit promptly curtailed that same July when it was announced the German club had successfully agreed a new three-year contract with the centre-back. Like Kane, he too is now at Bayern.

After putting in a resolute performance against United in the 2021 Europa League final, Solskjaer was suitably impressed by Torres to the point of making the Villarreal centre-back a transfer target the following summer. Alas, nothing concrete materialised and Torres was forced to wait until summer 2023 to get his big Premier League move, courtesy of Aston Villa.

Bournemouth defender Nathan Ake was singled out as a priority signing as part of Solskjaer’s desperate search for a left-sided centre-back partner for captain Harry Maguire in the summer window of 2020. The Netherlands international then signed for Manchester City that August.

Solskjaer has revealed that he and his staff mulled over the possibility of signing Caicedo while he was still playing at Ecuadorian top-flight side Independiente del Valle, shortly before Brighton & Hove Albion took the plunge on the young, combative midfielder for just £4.5m. Of course, Chelsea signed him for £100m this summer.

“We discussed Moisés Caicedo, but we felt we needed players ready for there and then,” Solskjaer said. “Brighton are very good at letting players come from abroad and find their feet for a year and a half. At United, you don’t have that luxury and that has cost the club loads of players.”

CM: Declan Rice

Along with several other rival clubs, Solskjaer explored the option of signing Rice from West Ham long before interest ramped up to the point that Arsenal had to pay a transfer fee of £100m to capture the England midfielder in July.

“[We looked at] Declan Rice, who wouldn’t have cost what he did in the summer,” the Norwegian recalled during his interview with The Athletic.

CM: Jude Bellingham

Now doing the business for Real Madrid and in some style, Bellingham has quickly blossomed into one of the most competent central midfielders in world football. United wanted to sign the youngster from boyhood club Birmingham City but he opted to leave England altogether and cut his teeth in the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund.

“We wanted Jude Bellingham badly,” Solskjaer lamented. “He’s a Man United [type of] player, but I respect he chose Dortmund. That was probably sensible.”

Manchester United were reportedly assessing a move for Grealish ahead of the 2020-21 season with Solskjaer very determined to push it over the line. However, Aston Villa’s £80 million valuation brought a halt to proceedings and the winger eventually signed a new contract at Villa Park — which included the £100m release clause Manchester City triggered the following summer.

CF: Harry Kane

The one that got away. Kane was known to be one of Solskjaer’s ultimate transfer targets throughout his tenure as Manchester United manager, desperate to add the England striker’s reliable goal return to the mix at Old Trafford.

Speaking about his long-term interest in Kane, Solskjaer said: “I would have signed Kane every day of the week and my understanding was that he wanted to come. But the club didn’t have the budget with the financial constraints. […] There was no bottomless pit.”

Of course, former Tottenham forward Kane has already returned to haunt United since leaving the Premier League for Bayern Munich last month by scoring in the Champions League this week.

Solskjaer had the misfortune of missing out on his top target during the winter transfer window of 2019, when Haaland signed for Borussia Dortmund instead. This was despite United’s sustained attempts to tempt Haaland to Old Trafford.

Haaland, of course, played under Haaland at Molde before joining FC Salzburg and has gone on to be one of the most prolific strikers in the game — he scored 36 Premier League goals for Manchester City last season, a record in a single season by a player.

Having failed to land his main man, Solskjaer was forced to make alternative arrangements, which ultimately ended with the deadline-day arrival of Odion Ighalo on a short-term loan from Shanghai Shenhua.

Chris Wright

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