Having scored big in the recent summer transfer window doesn’t necessarily equate big wins as a guarantee of success that should be taken for granted, as a Premier League top flight club recently discovered.
Manchester United boss, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, was put under scrutiny again after Switzerland’s Young Boys taught the Red Devils a lesson in their opening Champions League game for the season as the Swiss team turned the tables on their supposed weighty English league conterparts with a 2-1 victory that could have been a bigger margin.
Prior to the match, United’s boss Solskjaer – apparently brimming with confidence after a tremendously successful transfer window that saw them rake in the likes of Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund and Raphael Varane from Real Madrid, and topped off with none other than Cristiano Ronaldo from Juventus as the icing on the cake – was already trumpeting his newly-assembled team’s readiness to win the Champions League. Sadly for the Norwegian, the cake seems to have landed on his face instead after the farce of a shambolic encounter the Red Devils put up against the Young Boys in Bern.
What clearly emerged after the match to again confirm a long, foregone conclusion is Solskjaer’s supremely suspect, and haphazard, game management and that the Norwegian evidently still has a long way to sojourn before he can be ranked as a deserving peer amongst his counterparts in the highest echelons as managers-cum-head-coaches in any league in Europe.
Suffice it to say that for now, Solskjaer’s embarrassing Champions League record is already casting a massive shadow over Manchester United as the Red Devils were given a sobering reality check by the Swiss lads as United’s Champions League campaign has begun with an embarrassing defeat that was hardly expected.
The only possible good news for Solskjaer, and his only hope of redemption, is that there are another five games in line to back up his bloated, pre-match claim that his team are ready to win the Champions League. However, cautioning restraint in being prudent, one has to realistically bear in mind that the Norwegian has now lost seven of his 11 games in this most prestigious of European competitions as Manchester United manager. That’s four in his last five.
To say that this isn’t good enough for someone wearing the boots of a Manchester United manager is definitely a gross understatement. Making progress in the Europa League like the Norwegian did in last season’s campaign after crashing out of the Champions League is a most feeble way of making amends. The inescapable fact that Solskjaer’s side continues to come up underwhelmingly short is pretty damning evidence that the man himself is painfully lacking in the management chutzpah and tactical nous so vitally needed to fulfill the mission that he is tasked with.
Solskjaer had proudly highlighted the new strength of his squad ahead of the trip to Switzerland and took advantage of his options by bringing Victor Lindelof, Fred and Donny van de Beek into his starting lineup.
Thankfully there weren’t more changes for what should, at least on paper anyway, have been United’s easiest Champions League away day to kick off the new UCL season, as Solskjaer would probably have forgotten about the six changes he made for the trip to Istanbul Basaksehir last season, which in no small part contributed to the 2-1 defeat in Turkey that earned them an ignominious, early exit at the group stage. One can only hope that the same result here does not turn out to be a bad omen of impending doom and gloom for the incurably-optimistic Solskjaer and his now not-so-merry men.
Of course, it wouldn’t require rocket science to figure out that there was no way Ronaldo would be left out. After scoring twice on his comeback debut against Newcastle on Saturday, it took him all of 13 minutes to find the net here, drifting craftily to the back post to stab the ball – courtesy of a delicious pass from the left with the outside of Bruno Fernandes’ right boot – underneath scrambling Young Boys goalkeeper David von Ballmoos.
The artful poacher’s gift should have signalled the start of a comfortable evening for United. Any why shouldn’t it have been? After all, it had all begun so amazingly well. The great CR7 had marked his record-equalling 177th appearance in this competition with another goal most delightfully poached – scoring the third of his highly-heralded homecoming from just his third shot on target. That, unfortunately, ended up being United’s high point of the evening.
Any and all expectations of a smashing evening with the United artillery blitzing all in its way promptly disappeared with one dastardly touch from Wan-Bissaka. With the ball running away from him on the hard, artificial surface at Stadion Wankdorf, the right-back went over the top and crunchingly onto Ulisses Garcia’s awaiting ankle.
It is undeniable that red cards can mess up the final outcomes of matches but even with that being said, one would hardly expect the newly-fangled United team, resplendent on paper albeit reduced to 10-strong, to suddenly collapse like a house of cards just because one player, and certainly not a lynchpin, has been removed from the equation. The problem in this case clearly lies with the manager.
Team selection is always a highly-debatable issue. However, wouldn’t it be within the bounds of common sense to play one’s best team with the best players for the immediate game in hand that happens to be your first opening game in the Champions League instead of saving them for the game that comes thereafter? Astroturf or even if it’s Bermuda grass, the main thing would be to get that first win, period.
If that be the case, where then was Mason Greenwood, who only happens to be young and in great form, and creates chances for others and himself to score?
Questions are also arising regarding Solskjaer’s misplaced tactics after Wan-Bissaka’s sending-off, as his decision to switch to a five-man defense at half-time seemed to invite pressure rather than combat it.
Following Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s red card, Solskjaer had five opportunities to shuffle his pack and each change he made in Switzerland had a negative impact on his side.
While the decision to replace Jadon Sancho with Diogo Dalot to plug the Wan-Bissaka gap at right-back looked a sensible call, it left United void of any wide options in a four-man midfield consisting of Donny van de Beek, Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes and Fred.
With United 1-0 up at the time through Cristiano Ronaldo’s early strike, this could have been forgiven. The idea for a more narrow shape to combat going down to 10 men had merit considering there was no need to attack.
But this soon became a problem following the next round of changes. Van de Beek, who was operating well in the centre was replaced by Raphael Varane as United went five at the back after half-time and it only reduced how effective they could operate in the midfield while also inviting pressure.
Once Young Boys equalised, Solskjaer then replaced key attacking players Ronaldo and Fernandes, replacing them with Nemanja Matic and Jesse Lingard. This left United with even less presence going forward and fewer options of an outball.
Perhaps realizing United were now far too defensive, the final change saw Anthony Martial introduced for Fred, but with all the attacking momentum now with Young Boys, there was little chance of United creating anything apart from a one-man counter attack before Young Boys’ stoppage time winner.
It is easy to forget Solskjaer was in favor of the Premier League reintroducing five substitutions. Time and again, the ‘Baby-Faced Assassin’, best known for his role as a ‘super sub’ as a player in the past, comes a cropper with his substitutions that has caused a lot of misgivings about his changes in Bern.
To reiterate, Solskjaer has suffered seven defeats in 11 Champions League matches as United manager and they are littered with inexplicable in-game management. Fred was left on against Paris Saint-Germain when he should have been sent off and he eventually was in the second-half, Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Axel Tuanzebe – defenders, the both of them – entered the fray with United 3-0 down at RB Leipzig and this time United were burnt in Bern.
After the Europa League final disaster-class last season, Solskjaer said the first substitution was ‘difficult’. It came in the 100th minute and United’s four other substitutes were sent on in either the 116th minute or 123rd minute. All of them were on to take a penalty in the shootout, only Solskjaer failed to introduce a goalkeeper capable of saving a penalty.
The issue with which Solskjaer now finds himself being left with no choice but to confront – that can’t be pushed aside after splurging big money on Ronaldo, four-time European Cup winner Raphael Varane and England star Jadon Sancho – is that both he and United have no excuses not to win silverware any more.
When you and your fans are chirping happily that you’ve ‘won the transfer window’, you can’t point to this being a young side when you’ve put yourself firmly into what, in American Sports terminology, is called the “Win Now” mode – which is actually a two-edged sword that cuts both ways, depending on how it is used.