It is a fact that red cards change games but should any side down to 10 men allow a game to change this much? Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s sending off in Bern was the main reason why a comfortable winning start to this season’s Champions League campaign turned into a damaging defeat for Manchester United – but it should not be used an excuse. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s game management in Europe will come under scrutiny once more, as his response from the touchline only spurred Young Boys on to a historic victory.
It had all started so well. Cristiano Ronaldo marked his record-equalling 177th appearance in this competition with a goal – scoring the third goal of his homecoming from just his third shot on target – but that would be the high point of the evening from United’s perspective. Wan-Bissaka’s dismissal for an ugly challenge on Christopher Martins changed everything. United lost control and never regained it.
Jordan Siebatcheu’s late winner in the final minute of stoppage time was no less than the Swiss champions deserved. David Wagner’s side maximised their man advantage, levelling first through Moumi Ngamaleu, and capitalised on Solskjaer’s questionable decision-making on the touchline which saw Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes among those substituted. A stray backpass by Jesse Lingard, Ronaldo’s replacement, played Siebatcheu in for the winner.
The hope is that this will not prove to be as damaging as the away game against the group’s weakest seeds last season – the 2-1 defeat to Istanbul Basaksehir, which Solskjaer recently described as his lowest point in the job. Villarreal, United’s conquerors in last season’s Europa League final, are next, while Atalanta have established themselves as a talented and capable side at this level over the last few years. Both will travel to Bern expecting to take three points that United could not.
Solskjaer made three changes from the weekend and surprisingly called upon Donny van de Beek for only the 16th start of his year-old United career, and only the eighth in the Premier League or Champions League. Van de Beek took up one of the two deep-lying midfield roles, freeing up Paul Pogba to take a more advanced position on the left. The breakthrough came from that flank after 13 minutes, though it was fashioned by Fernandes.
There has been plenty of speculation regarding how Fernandes will link up with Ronaldo, given how he has largely played in the superstar’s shadow while representing Portugal. In 26 international appearances together, Fernandes has only ever assisted his compatriot once. This was the first time that they have combined in a United shirt and it may come to be remembered as the best.
Fernandes’s cross, delivered from the inside-left channel, was struck low with the outside of his right foot and through the slightest of gaps as he was closed down by two Young Boys defenders. It was the type of pass that only a few can play and capitalised on Ronaldo’s smart, instinctive movement. The 135th Champions League goal of his career was not hit cleanly, hitting goalkeeper David von Ballmoos’s legs and bouncing through them, but the timing of his run and Fernandes’ vision had made it possible.
United remained in the ascendancy right up until the red, at which point the dynamic changed entirely. Wan-Bissaka had been the one real weak link up until that point, failing to connect with team-mates while in possession, and he paid the price for that sloppy play. A poor first touch forced him into the 50-50 challenge with Christopher Martins and he arrived late, rolling his foot over the midfielder’s ankle. Fernandes headed for the dugout and appeared to tell United’s backroom staff it was, unfortunately, a clear sending off.
Jadon Sancho had struggled for influence and was sacrificed, with Diogo Dalot introduced. The sight of Christian Fassnacht going close with a volley a minute later probably inspired another change at half time. Van de Beek’s rotten luck persisted, with Raphael Varane drafted in as part of a switch to a back five. It was as though Solskjaer was expecting to spend the second half on the back foot and that was exactly how it played out.
Other than one early burst in behind from Ronaldo that ended in tame appeals for a penalty, United had no outlet to relieve the inevitable Young Boys pressure. It built gradually until the crescendo of Ngamaleu’s equaliser, which came after United’s narrow defensive line offered Meschak Elia plenty of space on the right. Elia’s cross deflected off Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire on its way through to the six-yard box, while Ngamaleu sneaked in ahead of Varane to poke home.
Solskjaer’s changes had not worked but then came two of his most surprising. Fernandes and Ronaldo were both taken off to leave a five-man defence, a three-man midfield and Lingard playing as a lone striker. The lack of a physical presence up front meant Young Boys’ counter-attacks only came back faster and, just as United appeared to have emerged with an unsatisfactory but creditable point, Lingard’s backpass set Siebatcheu up to consign United to a calamitous defeat.
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