A red card can change a game, but it doesn’t have to. So when Aaron Wan-Bissaka was sent off for a rash tackle after 35 minutes of Manchester United’s Champions League opener against Young Boys, with the visitors to Bern 1-0 up, it still seemed probable that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s superior side would ride it out.
By full time, though, United had another Champions League car crash in front of them. Last season, Istanbul Basaksehir were the Pot 4 team to inflict defeat on Solskjaer and his players and this time it was the Swiss champions who embarrassed the Premier League outfit who only had themselves to blame.
Wan-Bissaka’s first half red card undeniably altered the dynamic of the match. Until then, Manchester United had been in control of the contest. Cristiano Ronaldo opened the scoring with his third goal in two games with the visitors dominant enough that further goals seemed likely.
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It was in the period after the red card that United ultimately lost the game, though. Nobody let the side down more than Solskjaer whose in-game management cost his team their chance of a positive result. This was another instance during which the Norwegian’s weakness as a tactician was exposed.
While Solskjaer’s decision to introduce Diogo Dalot after Wan-Bissaka’s red card was logical, the call to withdraw Jadon Sancho boggled the mind. The winger hadn’t played especially well until that point, but this change left United with the attack-minded Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba and Donny van de Beek in the same midfield unit.
Faced with a man disadvantage, this simply didn’t give Manchester United the control and protection they needed in the centre of the pitch. At half time, van de Beek was hooked for Raphael Varane as Solskjaer shifted to a back three before Fernandes and Ronaldo were substituted off for Jesse Lingard and Nemanja Matic. If there was a game plan, it was an incoherent one.
Solskjaer conceded far too much to an opponent his team still should have been able to better than with 10 men. This resulted in United hanging on for an hour of play. They invited Young Boys forward with no way to get out from the back. There was no outlet as the gap between the defence and the attack grew wider and wider. Ronaldo barely featured after scoring.
Rather than creating such a fundamental disconnect between the front and the back of his team, Solskjaer should have bolstered his midfield to keep Young Boys at arm’s length. Ronaldo should have been sacrificed earlier than he was and Mason Greenwood introduced as an outlet to relieve pressure.
There will be yet more discussion about Solskjaer’s capacity as a tactician after this defeat. After a summer window which saw United add genuine quality to their squad, the 48-year-old must prove he is worthy of leading such a group of world class players. The stakes have never been higher for Solskjaer who doesn’t measure up too well when compared to his Premier League peers - Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel.
It was a momentous victory in the Champions League, against Paris Saint-Germain at the Parc des Princes in 2019, that essentially earned Solskjaer the Manchester United job, but the competition has since brought the worst out of the Norwegian. Remarkably, United have now lost seven of the 11 Champions League matches they have played under Solskjaer.
If Manchester United’s squad, following the addition of Sancho, Ronaldo and Varane over the summer transfer window, is now deemed good enough to challenge for major honours, it won’t take much for Solskjaer to be targeted as the weak link if such challenges don’t materialise.
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