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Sunday, October 17, 2021

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Man United have two games to prove Solskjaer’s European criticism is wrong

What to make of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s European record at Manchester United? A semi-final and final in the Europa League might look reasonable on paper, but it’s the defeats in those games that fall into a concerning wider pattern, one that has to change before Christmas.

Two seasons ago United were beaten by Sevilla in the semi-finals of the Europa League, squandering a winning position and failing to change the direction of the game. Last year they went into the final against Villarreal as strong favourites but didn’t do enough to win the game in 120 minutes.

It’s worth remembering United were only in the Europa League after the turn of the year last season because of the mess they had made in their Champions League group. After the disastrous opening to this year’s competition in Bern on Tuesday there might already be a sense of deja vu for United.

Falling to get out of this group – one as tame as it gets in the Champions League – would have to put Solskjaer’s job at risk, but the Norwegian has now lost seven of the 11 games he’s led United into in this competition.

Three of those defeats – in four games – came after he’d replaced Jose Mourinho in December 2018. There was no great shame in losing home and away to Barcelona and the Old Trafford defeat to Paris Saint-Germain was, memorably, expunged in the French capital.

That’s the frustration for Solskjaer and United. Of the four games he hasn’t lost, two are wins against PSG in Paris and the other was that 5-0 evisceration of RB Leipzig at Old Trafford last season.

But the return fixture against the Bundesliga side turned into another continental catastrophe, United finding themselves two behind in 13 minutes and 3-0 down by 70 minutes in a game they had to avoid defeat in to qualify.

Perhaps the most damning defeats have come in Istanbul and Bern, however. Solskjaer rotated too much against Basaksehir last season, making half-a-dozen changes, and individual mistakes pockmarked a poor performance. Against Young Boys they had the lead but never had control and when Aaron Wan-Bissaka was sent off it turned into a torrid night.

The half-time decision to revert to a back three invited pressure and the decision to remove Donny van de Beek from the fray meant United simply couldn’t keep the ball when they got it.

It was the worst possible way to start a European campaign in what has to be a defining season for Solskjaer. Given the investment in the summer progress can no longer be the buzzword at Old Trafford. It has to translate to success.

While the Premier League might be the ultimate judgement, failing in a relatively weak Champions League group would be hard to recover from. The idea that United rely on moments of individual quality to win games domestically is underselling Solskjaer, but there’s no doubt European football can prevent a greater variety of tactical challenges, so it has to be a concern United are coming off second best too often.

United’s other challengers in this group include a Villarreal side who finished seventh in La Liga last season and have drawn all three of their domestic games so far this season, but possess an astute one-off tactician in Unai Emery, and Atalanta, who have been the great entertainers in Serie A over the past three seasons.

Manchester United enjoyed a sensational transfer window, securing the signings of Jadon Sancho, Raphael Varane and… oh, yes, Cristiano Ronaldo.

Now, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be under pressure to deliver silverware with his star-studded front line. We cover every angle of the club at the MEN and with our dedicated United newsletter, you’ll never miss a headline. It’s free and there’s no spam.

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Gian Piero Gasperini’s side score a hatful of goals but have started this season poorly. Their set-up will pose a test for every side they face, however.

After defeat in Switzerland United now host these two sides at Old Trafford. It feels like they have to make it six points out of six to get back on track in this group. Any more failures and the spotlight on Solskjaer will increase.

It’s pretty clear United have the best squad in this group by a long way. Now they have to make that count and make sure there are no more nights like Istanbul, Leipzig or Bern.

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