In the end, the game that materialised from the Champions League last 16 clash between Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain was the one widely expected when it was drawn back in December. At that time, the Old Trafford side were toiling under the misery of Jose Mourinho, while the French champions were flying high. A walkover was predicted, and ultimately that’s what transpired.
Of course, this synopsis omits many crucial details of the lead up to this match, including the injuries suffered to PSG players like Neymar and Edinson Cavani and the resurgence of United under Solskjaer. Many, including this writer, claimed the dynamic had flipped in the two months between the draw and the match itself, but over 90 minutes a very different judgement was served.
The initial signs from United were good. Their pressing game was high and orchestrated. Between Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, they formed a battering ram to hassle and harry PSG into mistakes. Once the French champions composed themselves and started to play around the high line, though, Solskjaer’s game plan was picked apart.
There was plenty of energy to Man Utd’s first-half performance, but there were times when they looked like dogs chasing cars. Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic were probably the hosts’ best players on the night, but there was only so much they could do to cover the space PSG were opening up between the lines of midfield and attack.
United’s troubles were best demonstrated when Angel di Maria, the pantomime villain of the piece, got a shot away from the edge of the box in the first half. He failed to get the direction on the effort to truly bother Davide De Gea, but as the ball was passed across the edge of the area Man Utd failed three times to get a player close enough.
Solskjaer has achieved great things in a very short space of time. United now look on course to finish in the Premier League’s top four when not so long ago Mourinho insisted it would take a “miracle” to get there. He has done this by liberating the long suppressed attacking talent at Old Trafford, but on Tuesday night this approach seemingly found its limitations.
Thomas Tuchel out-coached Solskjaer. His PSG team turned in the sort of measured performance that suggests they will be genuine contenders for this season’s Champions League, applying pressure to Man Utd where required and standing off them when needed. There was a real intelligence not just to Tuchel’s game plan, but the way it was carried out.
There was none of that from United. Instead, they looked out of their depth. In recent weeks, players like Pogba, Lingard, Martial and Rashford have thrived with a newfound freedom, but against an opponent of PSG’s quality and calibre simply unleashing a group of players is simply not enough. This is where Solskjaer, perhaps for the first time as Man Utd caretaker, was found out.
This isn’t to say that the Norwegian’s chances of landing the job permanently have been vanquished. One defeat, especially one to a team as good as PSG, isn’t enough to counter all that has been witnessed over the past two months. Even looking at the defeat to PSG in isolation, certain things went against United. Who’s to say how the pivotal second half would have panned out had a fit Lingard and Martial remained on the pitch?
More concerning was the late sending off of Pogba, who looked on the brink of a red card for much of the match. Indeed, the Frenchman, when his team needed him most, lost his discipline. Pogba’s form of late has been exceptional, maybe even good enough to enter him as a late Player of the Year contender, but this was an unwelcome throwback to the player of old.
Whether it was in the conduct of Ashley Young, who feasibly could have been sent off in the first half for a nasty push on Di Maria into the advertising hoardings, the petulance shown towards the referee or the overall lack of control in their play, this was an ill-disciplined performance from United.
It was a display that showed what the next step must be for Solskjaer and his players.