Manchester United brought home a legend, signed one of football’s greatest defenders and added one of the brightest prospects in European football. But at the highest level, games can still be lost on the bench and that was one of them.
It was Jesse Lingard’s thoughtless back pass that helped Young Boys to a spectacular 2-1 victory in this Champions League opener. It was Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s lunge that reduced his team to 10 men, changing the course of the evening.
But it was Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer whose tactical decisions helped the Swiss side earn the points.
Everything seemed to be going according to plan when Cristiano Ronaldo – who else? – put United in the lead in the first quarter of an hour. But the red card to Wan-Bissaka at the end of the first half put the blame on the manager. Things started to unravel.
The initial decision to replace Jadon Sancho with Diogo Dalot was explainable. United needed a right-back on the pitch. The subsequent move to a return to three at half-time, involving Raphael Varane for Donny van de Beek, was far from necessary.
Solskjaer’s side went into containment mode, trying to defend their one-goal lead but showing little appetite for anything other than that. United didn’t even manage a shot after the 25th minute of a game in which their opponents had 19.
Their two-shot total is the least they have had in any of their 138 Champions League appearances since Opta started recording such things in the 2003/04 season.
“Manchester United couldn’t get out of their half,” said Paul Merson Air sports.
“If it was Manchester City with ten men, Young Boys wouldn’t have touched the ball.”
Some might think it’s hard to judge the performance once Wan-Bissaka was sent off the pitch, but the one-man advantage the Young Boys enjoyed hardly deserved such caution, such lack of ambition. Better teams would have offered more.
âLook at the replacements,â Merson added.
âYou want the ball to go the other way because if the ball goes the other way your opponents can’t tighten the game. That’s all the Young Boys did. They pushed it up. at the center line because there was no threat behind.
“Without this threat, you won’t win too many football games. If you want to take out Ronaldo, bring in Mason Greenwood because he has the pace.”
Ronaldo admirers have spent much of the last fifteen weeks explaining how the once complete footballer has become more of a penalty poacher in the later stages of his career. It was not of much help, United being far from that penalty area.
Solskjaer waited until the equalizer was over before removing Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes – only to replace them with Nemanja Matic and Jesse Lingard. It wasn’t about changing momentum, it was about hanging on to the toss.
In the absence of any offensive threat, the Young Boys were able to continue to dominate. Still, with Varane, Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof fending off whatever was thrown in the area, it looked like United would hang on – until Solskjaer’s final intervention.
Apparently realizing the need to add some sort of counterattack threat, or perhaps in an effort to waste time, the final change was made – introducing Anthony Martial for Fred. The move forced Lingard to play a deeper role. It had consequences.
It was from there, finding himself in this unusual position, that Lingard made the mistake that ultimately saw the Young Boys win the game. It felt more like the culmination of a series of questionable tactical decisions that conspired to doom United to defeat.
David Wagner’s Young Boys were seen as the underdogs of this group, but the hope is now that they can cause one or two more upheavals. If Atalanta and Villarreal make the double it will put enormous pressure on United in their remaining games.
This is the first game out of six in this Champions League group. It’s time to turn the tide, the opportunity to recover from a disappointing start. United lead the Premier League table. This alone shows that they are capable of achieving results.
And yet, they have not convinced since this first victory against Leeds.
“Manchester United haven’t started,” Merson added.
“Against Wolves they were very lucky. Against Newcastle when it was 1-1 it was a coin toss game. It could easily have gone in Newcastle’s direction.”
He might also have mentioned the draw against Southampton.
United always feel like they’re less than the sum of their parts.
“Ole has built a squad that should be able to take top prizes,” United legend Paul Scholes said, speaking on BT Sport. “There isn’t much of a difference in the top four teams, the only difference is probably in the managers.”
Sometimes matches are won by moments of individual brilliance. Manchester United have a lot of players who can do that. But sometimes matches have to be won by the manager. The suspicion remains that rivals United have a manager more likely to do so.
This defeat was an unwelcome reminder of how it can cost them.