WWith about 10 minutes to go at the Wankdorf Stadion, there was a sudden uproar from the Manchester United bench. The referee, François Letexier, had failed to spot a foul on Paul Pogba, and on the touchline Ole Gunnar Solskjær was joined by Bruno Fernandes and Cristiano Ronaldo, gesturing wildly with all the just indignation of the guys who had put their 50p on the edge of the pool table and now watched someone else pile up the balls.
If there was a fitting motive for United’s surprise 2-1 loss to Young Boys, maybe it was this: the United manager and perhaps their two most famous players ranting on the sidelines , unable to influence anything. Instead, it will be Jesse Lingard and Jordan Siebatcheu who will make the decisive contributions, the former with his shocking back pass, the latter with his grateful end in the fifth minute of added time.
Subsequently, Solskjær sought to shine the spotlight on the 32-year-old referee for failing to award Ronaldo a penalty early in the second half. “Sometimes you get it with young umpires,” he observed nonchalantly, and while there are some areas where Solskjær can legitimately be challenged, when it comes to promoting people to important roles in football with only the most negligible experience, it is probably best to rely on judgment.
As is customary in these scenarios, Captain Harry Maguire bravely took on the post-match press conference duties, looking grave and repentant, like a NASA scientist patiently explaining to the world’s media how they had accidentally managed to lose Saturn. “No footballer likes to make mistakes, but we are humans,” he said of Lingard’s mistake, and to be fair there was not much to dispute in the two parts of this statement.
But the most interesting part of Maguire’s analysis was when he assessed the tactical changes that took place on either side of the half. Immediately after Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s sacking, United were in a messy makeshift 4-4-1 with Fernandes and Pogba awkwardly patrolling the wings. After half-time Solskjær moved up to a 5-3-1, and for 20 minutes after the break United were relatively safe at the back.
“The majority of their chances came late in the first half when we were playing against fours and couldn’t come out to stop their crosses with the number of bodies they were throwing into the box,” said Maguire. “In the second half, we were pretty comfortable. We could have done more with the ball, but in terms of form without the ball I felt it was a lot better when we went down to three. They didn’t create a lot of chances.
The problem was, neither did United. In fact, from the 25th minute, Young Boys managed 15 shots on goal against United. Even for a United 10-a-side it was hopelessly thin against the weaker side in their group, and yet, despite all of their domestic progress under Solskjær, a pattern is starting to emerge here. His Champions League record is four wins, seven losses, and in most of those losses United have not just been trampled upon but dominated, foiled, dominated.
If Lingard had kicked the ball into touch rather than recklessly returning it to David de Gea, the questions might have seemed less pressing, but they would still have to be asked. How does one of the most impressive attacking sets in world football manage to show this little ambition against limited opponents? Why does this keep happening to Solskjær in Europe? And is that really the best that a club like United can do?
Solskjær certainly tried to make his mark on the proceedings, but just about every decision he made seemed to make United less threatening. Taking off Jadon Sancho for Diogo Dalot was a forced change, but removing Donny van de Beek for Raphael Varane deprived United of outlets in the midfield and set them up for a defensive rearguard. Ronaldo and Fernandes were missing from the game by the time they were retired, but replacing them with Lingard and Nemanja Matic was an absurdly backward move with Mason Greenwood and Anthony Martial in reserve. “We wanted Jesse’s legs,” Solskjær explained.
And so by the denouement, United were essentially unrecognizable from the team that had started with such a promise: four of their five forwards took off, form changed at least three times, players buzzing with only the faintest clue of what ‘they were meant to be Doing. It’s fine to blame individual mistakes, but at some point you also have to look at the bigger picture, and against a mid-range opposition United have produced maybe 100 minutes of decent football over the course of his first five matches.
This all brings us back to Solskjær. Beating teams like Leeds and Newcastle is good, but that’s not the reason why players like Ronaldo and Varane signed up. A club of United’s ambition should probably aim to win around 70-75% of their games, which generally means nowadays having a solid formula that works against most opponents in most conditions, at home and in. Europe. Almost three years after the start of the Solskjær era, the formula is still not entirely clear.
Maybe it’s just early teething problems. Maybe Solskjær is still in the lever pull stage of the season, figuring out how to get the most out of Ronaldo and Fernandes and Pogba and Sancho (and Greenwood and Marcus Rashford). Or maybe that’s all there is, and what looks like a master strategist looking for elite solutions is actually just a man, standing in a painted box, waving his arms.