Manchester United’s Champions League defeat by PSG leaves Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s future in the balance

It would be Solskjaer’s finest achievement as a manager to date if he finds a way to resuscitate a team he has already brought back to life once in a tie that appears to be beyond them

Simon Hughes
Old Trafford
Wednesday 13 February 2019 08:02
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admits PSG were 'a level up' from Manchester United

When the theatre lights of Old Trafford fill the night like a flood, when Manchester United stream into the competition where their manager defined his legacy in the sort of mood where it feels like anything is possible, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could be forgiven if even for a second his focus wavered and he thought about life should it go back to the way it was just a few months ago.

Few football arenas have a more bucolic setting than the Aker Stadion. Flanked on one side by the fjord regarded as being one of the most beautiful in Norway and on the other by green hills and deep forest, it will almost be mid-summer and Molde will be preparing for the long days of its jazz festival.

Solskjaer will again be coaching a team from a town where the population is a third of the capacity of Old Trafford’s, one funded by two billionaires who once bought Wimbledon and hired Egil Olsen, a decision which sent them crashing into the iceberg of the Premier League’s relegation zone.

Suddenly, the conversations in Norway about Solskjaer’s relationship with his agent, Jim Solbakken – which curiously seem to have stopped since his recent accomplishments in England – might return.

Solskjaer would be going back to a club where the big recent signings have been Eirik Ullan Anderson for roughly £1m and Martin Bjornbak, the captain of Bodo/Glimt and like the first couple of players Solskjaer recruited for Cardiff City five years ago, both are Solbakken clients. Solskjaer knows too he will be without Erling Haaland (the son of Alfie, and born in Leeds) whose sale to Red Bull Salzburg will cover the finance needed for each of the new signings.

Molde will be a third of the way through a season for he was planning for when in December, shortly after watching the Champions League draw on the couch with his son Noah, the phone rang and an opportunity came his way that he never seriously expected.

While Solskjaer has since influenced direction at United for a third time in his career, United has surely influenced his emotions too. Will he really be stimulated by the challenge that potentially awaits in Norway as he was before? Will another club try and take him elsewhere and would that match what he is helped inspire at United over the last eight weeks?

The French side scored two away goals

Discussion about what might happen to him beyond May were not a grand feature of the negotiations when he was appointed as caretaker at Old Trafford and so, the only way of enforcing the idea that he might be more than just a short-term solution was through dealership in silverware – perhaps in the Champions League.

It is tempting to render everything that Jose Mourinho claimed was wrong at United as self-serving nonsense, but the issue he was most consistent about was the need to reinforce United’s defence, believing this one was not capable of taking the club back to where it wanted to be because realities would be exposed when the pressure was really on. Perhaps this leverages some mitigation for what happened here Solskjaer too.

If what United really do have is a strikeforce with a future, this had been an opportunity to measure the development of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford under Solskjaer against a top-quality opponent they were fancied to beat because of notable absentees. It was also a chance to gauge themselves against what stands in front of them because Kylian Mbappe plays instead of Martial for the French national team and there is a growing feeling Rashford could be the English answer to Mbappe if his progression under Solskjaer as a centre forward continues. Could a United defensive pairing of Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof really stop Mbappe? Are Ashley Young and Luke Shaw really the answer at full-back? The answer, ultimately, was no.

While Martial was substituted at half time through injury, his eight touches represented the fewest of any player on the pitch in the first 30 minutes. Elsewhere, the composition of tasks for both Rashford and Mbappe was filled with contrast and some contradiction. Both players reliably found themselves followed by two deep-lying central midfielders as well as two central defenders. Though Rashford tried to find a way past a higher standard than Mbappe, the quality supporting Rashford was also better, considering Neymar and Edinson Cavani were not available to help Mbappe.

Mbappe, of course, had less to prove but more to do to penetrate United’s weakest department while Rashford had more to prove but – if supplied adequately – less to do in theory to penetrate what was – on the night – the visitors’ strongest area due to the presence of Thiago Silva, Marquinhos and Marco Verratti, all now experienced campaigners at this level.

Verratti proved to be the game’s outstanding performer. There are few of his type in the game presently: those midfielders whose positional sense means he is reliably in the right place to make a pass, reliably fizzed at a teammate, trusting his touch. At least Solskjaer had anticipated the trouble coming his way because one of his tweaks out of possession was pushing Ander Herrera onto Verratti rather than Paul Pogba who normally would be the most advanced of United’s midfield three.

The problem for United came when Verratti broke through the lines, as he did when he threaded a 15-yard pass to Julian Draxler in the first half. Mbappe really should have scored from there and silence fell in anticipation of the inevitable. Yet Mbappe reminded that he is human and on the touchline, Thomas Tuchel processed one of those looks which reflected his thinking: “That was a big chance.”

Paul Pogba is shown a red card

Solskjaer tried to get more out of Lingard by offering him instructions as Martial received treatment but when he fell in a heap as well, another enforced substitution was necessary and on waddled Alexis Sanchez. Swiftly, the tempo of the game changed and United lacked any thrust whatsoever.

Perhaps it was appropriate that in the end, the match-winning goals from Presnel Kimpembe and Mbappe were made possible by the crossing ability of Angel di Maria, the winger who was brought to Old Trafford five years ago for an extraordinary fee sanctioned by Ed Woodward.

The best chief executives see the gaps and recognise how the spaces need to be filled and Woodward’s next decision relates to the future of Solskjaer. This has the potential to mark his reputation as an administrator and be of far greater significance than any player he has previously signed or sponsorship deal he has helped bring.

Perhaps Woodward is aware of the story behind Ian Ayre’s fate at Liverpool when he recommended to the club’s owners not to break the £70 barrier for the highest match ticket at Anfield but went along with it anyway.

A few days later, Ayre was explaining in front of cameras why it was all ok – warning the club’s supporters to be “careful what they wish for” following a backlash which resulted in more than 20,000 fans walking out before a game against Sunderland was over. It made Ayre look daft and inwardly, he should have fumed with himself for sinking into such a position, knowing it was his head on the chopping board.

Within a month, Ayre's departure was announced. If Woodward considers Mauricio Pochettino the better option than Solskjaer in spite of what the players think, he must go for him. Decent chief executives live by conclusions they arrive at and bad ones fall because of ones they’ve been forced into even if the initial signs are tempting to follow.

Some of PSG's players are not quite as good as they think as individuals but they are better collectively than most care to consider. From here, especially without Pogba following his late dismissal, it will be Solskjaer's finest achievement as a manager to date if he finds a way to resuscitate a team he has already brought back to life once in a tie that appears to be dead.

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