“You can’t lay down and say this is over. We’re going to have to go down [to Paris Saint-Germain], believe in ourselves, play a good game, improve from today, obviously. But, today, of course, was kind of a reality check on the level from the top teams.”
Tuesday’s loss provided the thing that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s unbeaten streak couldn’t — it provided new perspective on the team’s areas for improvement, and Solskjaer’s post match comments, referenced above, reflected that fact.
Manchester United superfan, Stormzy, once said, “you’re getting way too big for your boots, you’re never too big for the boot.” That opening line from the British Grime classic surmises the confluence of events that occurred before, during and after the first leg at Old Trafford.
Using myself as an example, I was one of the millions around the world that was borderline delusional in the lead up.
If we win by multiple goals tonight, I’m starting a Kickstarter for my trip to the Champions League final in Madrid. #TheOleEffect— Nathan Heintschel (@KickAndGiggles) February 12, 2019
We forgot that United were supposed to lose to Paris Saint-Germain back in December when the draw was first revealed. Simply put, PSG gave us the proverbial boot, or, in Presnel Kimpembe’s case, an unbooked elbow and throw down. PSG accomplished this by exploiting every last weakness that we’ve screamed about during the José Mourinho era but, then, sort of forgot about during Solskjaer’s opening run as manager.
The Norwegian’s run of form glossed over the squad’s deficiencies, and there’s a sneaking suspicion that Ed Woodward was more than happy to use it as an excuse to not spend money on new signings — as evidenced by the lack of business in the January transfer window.
ESPN FC’s Mark Ogden deduced, minutes after the match, “[Solskjaer’s] using maybe 13 or 14 players that he trusts. I think he’s identified the players that can’t do it for him, but 13,14 players isn’t enough — especially at this [Champions League] level.”
We have other articles on The Busby Babe breaking down the tactics of how Le Parisiens prevailed at Old Trafford. Therefore, I’ll simply reduce the analysis to its core by stating that the result came down to matchups of quality, and United’s corp of midtable defenders couldn’t contain top-level attackers and a future Ballon d’Or winner.
When Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard limped off the field with injuries, Solskjaer had to lean on substitutes that didn’t necessarily spark joy in a way that Marie Kondo would approve. Alexis Sánchez, Juan Mata and, later in the match, Romelu Lukaku failed to provide a spark, and the squad succumbed to the inevitability of it all; Paul Pogba’s second yellow card proving to be the final nail in the coffin.
The last two weeks have identified the roster’s floor and ceiling. Burnley and Leicester provided evidence of the floor and that, under Solskjaer, a heavy-legged United could still grind out results. Against Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United looked like what it is: a team that battling for the final Champions League spot in its domestic league. But that’s okay.
It was fun musing over entering new levels of credit card debt to afford watching United in the Champions League final in Spain, but, ultimately, it’s a level the team needs to continue building towards. Crashing out of the round of 16 against PSG is, certainly, the lesser of two evils when compared to getting knocked out by Sevilla in 2018.
Before it can set its sights on European successes, Manchester United needs to reassert its dominance in England, and the club will accomplish this by cementing its leadership with A DIRECTOR OF FOOTBALL.
The club is in a no-rush, win-win situation with its managerial search. They can let Solskjaer sing for his supper for the rest of the season, and, if he delivers like we all expect, he’ll be named the permanent manager. If major managerial deficiencies crop up in the closing months, United can thank the club legend for his service and announce the new manager. Either way, the final say on the next manager should be made by THE DIRECTOR OF FOOTBALL.
Unlike the managerial search, the club needs to make haste and hire its choice to deliver vision and steer the operations of the club’s first team and academy. Roma’s Sports Director, Monchi, is a top-target of United’s according to The Mirror, but Arsenal and PSG are also interested in the Spaniard. If Monchi is the guy, not only would an accelerated appointment hurt a direct and indirect rival of United, it would also give him time to choose his transfer targets and manager before the summer transfer window.
Sustained pressure from all sides forced Woodward’s hand in sacking Mourinho. That same pressure must now be applied to hire the guy that will identify and purchase the right winger, center backs, full backs and box-to-box midfielder United needs to properly battle the likes of Paris Saint-Germain on a classic European night.
Therefore, United should refocus its efforts as winter yields to spring. Martial and Lingard will undergo fitness tests following their muscle injuries and, hopefully, be ready for Solskjaer’s next push. The team plays a reeling Chelsea in the fifth round of the FA Cup on Feb. 18, and United will have two extra days of rest as Chelsea plays Malmö FF on Feb. 14 in the Europa League. The Red Devils will want a convincing result at Stamford Bridge to advance to the FA Cup Quarterfinals and build momentum for their league rematch against Liverpool at Old Trafford on Feb. 24.
Maybe United pulls a Barcelona and upsets a seemingly insurmountable lead created by Paris Saint-Germain two weeks after the Liverpool match on March 6, but let’s all chill out and not exacerbate the matter like I (we) did for the first leg.
The roadmap to improve for next season is clear thanks to Tuesday’s reality check. A top 4 finish and possible silverware in the FA Cup — both unlikely possibilities before Christmas — should be the priority. Now, it’s time to implement it and enjoy the ride for as long as Ole’s behind the wheel. Let’s worry about Champions League, again, after we’ve guaranteed our spot for next year.