Manchester United crashed out of the UEFA Champions League after losing to RB Leipzig on Tuesday (December 8). Their continental journey will now continue in the second-tier Europa League. The setback in Germany has put manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s future at the club under the scanner.
What was the requirement for United to qualify for the Round of 16?
United just needed a draw against Leipzig to qualify for the Champions League’s Round of 16. They were in pole position to reach the knockout stages after winning their first two matches in Group H against Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) away and Leipzig at home.
Going into their final group league fixture, they had nine points from five matches and a draw would have been enough to advance. But Solskjaer’s team conceded two goals inside the first 14 minutes and eventually lost 2-3.
Was the defeat down to defensive errors?
It was down to defensive errors and poor organisation. Solskjaer went with a 3-5-2 formation. Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Alex Telles played as wings-backs on the right and left respectively, along with three centre-halves; Victor Lindelof, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw.
The first two goals that United conceded were down to poor defensive organisation, as both Angelino and Amadou Haidara, who scored for Leipzig, were allowed acres of space in the final third. The third goal, scored by Justin Kluivert, resulted from a mix-up between Maguire and goalkeeper David De Gea.
How did Solskjaer respond?
Leipzig should have been 3-0 up inside 20 minutes, but Emil Forsberg missed a sitter.
Wan-Bissaka is an out-and-out full back and he struggled as a wing back. The defender was allowing Leipzig attackers, especially Angelino, a free run by standing off them. Telles and Shaw, too, were off the pace.
Solskjaer brought on Donny van de Beek for Telles for the second half, and went for a flat back four. By then though, United were playing catch-up.
Despite the team trailing, Solskjaer sent defenders Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Axel Tuanzebe as substitutes instead of attackers like Juan Mata and Daniel James.
How had Solskjaer’s in-game management been in earlier CL games?
Against PSG at Old Trafford, the United manager delayed substituting Fred even after the midfielder had escaped a red card in the first half – he was booked instead – when he appeared to headbutt PSG’s Leandro Paredes. Fred had lost his composure and eventually received his marching orders on 70 minutes after a second yellow. United were already 2-1 down and after being reduced to 10 men, barely had a chance.
Fred has been United’s most consistent midfielder this season, and his unavailability for the all-important Leipzig fixture cost the team dear.
Did the ongoing Paul Pogba saga have an impact?
United didn’t have the ideal build-up for their final group phase game. Pogba’s agent Mino Raiola had upset the applecart when he told Italian news outlet Tuttosport: “I can say it’s over for Paul Pogba at Manchester United.
“There’s no point beating about the bush. It’s better to speak honestly, look to the future and not waste time trying to blame people. Paul is unhappy at Manchester United, he can no longer express himself as he wants to or in the way that’s expected of him. He needs to change team; he needs a change of scenery. He has a contract that will expire in a year-and-a-half, in the summer of 2022, but the best solution for all parties is a transfer in the next window.”
That Pogba didn’t distance himself from the statement suggested that the agent had his client’s approval. As Liverpool legend and former England international Jamie Carragher said on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football: “He (Raiola) will be Pogba’s best mate, so Pogba will be well aware of what’s going to come out of his mouth – and if he wasn’t, he should sack his agent. It’s very simple. That’s all that needs to happen.” 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram
Despite this, Pogba was firmly in Solskjaer’s plans, else he would have left the player out of the matchday squad. But a late introduction allowed Pogba just 29 minutes to change the course of the match. He scored the team’s second goal and almost set up the equaliser in the dying minutes.
Data put out by United’s official app show that the midfielder made 30 touches and completed 10 passes in the opposition half. He was United’s best player during his cameo. Also, Pogba was fresh from his screamer against West Ham United in the Premier League on Saturday.
At the post-match press conference, Solskjaer was asked about Pogba’s future and Raiola. “As soon as Paul’s agent realises this is a team sport and we work together the better, and that’s maybe the last thing I will say on that,” the United manager said.
Have United made progress under Solskjaer?
United have taken 51 points from 24 matches in the Premier League since the end of the January transfer window. Finishing third in the league last season suggested progress.
They are sixth in the Premier League at the moment, with 19 points from 10 matches. Before Tuesday night, they had won nine consecutive away games.
Then again, the team’s upsurge in form coincided with Bruno Fernandes’s arrival. As per the Premier League stats, the Portuguese has scored 15 goals and provided 11 assists in 24 league appearances. In the Champions League this term, he has scored four goals in six matches.
United had been making comebacks of late but couldn’t manage it at Leipzig. And now, relegation to the Europa League means that United are back to square one and Solskjaer’s project has hit a major roadblock. He has now lost six of his 10 Champions League matches as United manager.
Will United sack Solskjaer?
The club had pulled the plug on David Moyes and Louis van Gaal only after the team was out of the Champions League qualification race. Jose Mourinho, however, was sacked when the team was still in the Champions League.
Solskjaer is approaching the two-year anniversary of his appointment as United manager and only a few days back, while speaking at a virtual fans’ forum, the club’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward had backed the incumbent.
“…We see positive signs on the pitch and the training ground that reinforce our belief in the progress being made by Ole, his coaching team and the players,” Woodward had said.
But, as ‘The Athletic’ reported, United missed out on £8.5 million by not getting into the knockout stages of the Champions League. That’s big money in a Covid-ravaged season. Also, in top-flight football management, public backing from the board can be fraught with risks, especially at a time when Mauricio Pochettino is still a free agent.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines