There are no good losses. But there are good uses to which losses can be put.
In the context of the competition, Manchester United’s 2-0 home defeat to Paris Saint-Germain puts them right up against it. Even with Paul Pogba, reversing that scoreline in Paris would be quite the task. Without him, it’ll take a modest miracle.
(Obviously, modest miracles do happen. Go forth with a heart full of hope. But don’t bet your post-Brexit stockpile of tinned goods on United going through.)
If you’ll forgive the cliche, the game against PSG fell into two roughly equal, chronologically consecutive, clearly defined and distinct portions. The first was pretty even, and we saw United doing most of the things they’ve been doing since VM (Victory over Mourinho) Day: pressing their opponents, looking to squirrel forwards at pace, generally enjoying themselves.
The second was not. As is the way with football, the reasons for this were numerous and interlinked. Mostly it was a question of pace: United went from three rapid forwards to one, thanks to the injuries to Martial and Lingard, making PSG’s life much easier.
One of those slower replacements was the broken shell of Alexis Sanchez, which only made things sadder. Also United can’t defend corners. Or take them, come to think of it. And Pogba couldn’t escape Marquinhos and PSG actually played pretty well and Kylian Mbappe is ridiculous. And …
… you get the idea.
Solskjaer will take some criticism for United’s oddly passive second half, and the apparent lack of anything resembling a plan B. Sanchez and Mata struggled to get anything done in the wide positions, and Romelu Lukaku didn’t even make it onto the pitch until the 83rd minute. In addition, it was clear that United’s heads went, just a little bit, after the first goal and then again late on.
But in a broader sense, this was another restatement of what we all knew about the squad: the defence is wobbly, the midfield is far from perfect, and — most importantly — the squad is weird. It’s deep, in terms of numbers, and it cost a lot to put together, and yet when Solskjaer went to his bench to change things, he found a striker he didn’t fancy and two attacking midfielders that were bought mostly for the sake of it.
And now we get to find out how everybody gets along on the other side of the stumble. Can the players refocus; can Solskjaer and his managerial cabal refocus them? If Lingard and Martial will be absent for a while, can another attacking system be contrived? Can Lukaku, Fred, and Sanchez come to the party? Solskjaer came into heal, and he did it; now he has to manage.
After all, we know, from close and careful observation of the last few years, that the people who run United are … let’s say whimsical. Easily swayed by whatever’s happened most recently.
“Oh hey, Juan Mata is available! Quick, the helicopter!”
“Oh hey, Louis van Gaal’s had a good World Cup! Quick, the clipboard!”
“Oh hey, Alexis Sanchez is available! Quick, the piano!” And so on.
And so if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is to get the manager’s job on a full-time basis, then everybody needs to be reassured that he does so after a careful consideration of all the evidence and all the options. Not because Ed Woodward has looked at a long line of Ws and thought “Oh hey, this is going well! Quick, the extra-large contract!”
It would have been pretty good to win the Champions League. Instead, United have been given a useful moment: a reminder to the hierarchy that there are problems beyond the manager and a chance for us all to see how the heir apparent copes when things start to spin out of control. Not as fun as glory, of course. But not a bad consolation.