MANCHESTER — There is no hiding place in the Champions League, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer probably wanted one as he and his Manchester United team were outclassed and outsmarted by Thomas Tuchel and Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of this round-of-16 tie at Old Trafford.
As if being beaten 2-0 by a rampant PSG was not bad enough, Solskjaer also had to watch two of his in-form forwards — Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial — limp off with injuries, while the red card Paul Pogba received in the closing stages will rule the France midfielder out of the return leg in his home city on March 6.
It was one of those nights for the home side. United went into the game with high optimism, but PSG’s experience and class shone through against Solskjaer’s naivety and his side’s limitations.
“Today was a kind of a reality check on the level of the top teams,” Solskjaer said. “You can see that we’ve not played games at this level for a while. It was one of those experiences that can go either way, but it’s not going to be a season-defining one for us. It has to be one that we are going to learn from. When we go to Paris we’ll give it a go. It’s a mountain to climb, but not impossible.”
Since replacing Jose Mourinho in December, Solskjaer has done a remarkable job as caretaker manager, winning 10 out of 11 games and drawing the other, but this was a night when reality bit hard for the Norwegian.
PSG were missing injured forwards Neymar and Edinson Cavani, but their absence was barely noticed as Kylian Mbappe, Marco Verratti and Angel Di Maria — the latter jeered throughout at his former home ground — orchestrated the French champions’ victory, which sees them put one foot in the quarterfinals.
The end of Solskjaer’s unbeaten start as United’s interim boss was an ordeal at times for the 45-year-old, whose selection and game plan were exposed by his opposite number. Momentum can take a team only so far and Tuchel, the highly rated former Borussia Dortmund coach, showed the need to be tactically astute to win on a stage as unforgiving as the Champions League knockout rounds.
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Solskjaer might have that tactical acumen in his locker, but it was not on show on a chastening night for the man in the home dugout. Tuchel deployed Marquinhos as a man-marker on Pogba, who has been a central figure during United’s resurgence, and the French international was completely nullified.
Unable to find a solution to the problem of having their midfield driving force taken out of the encounter, United could not get a grip of the game or any kind of control as a consequence. By contrast, the half-fit Verratti was left to dictate the central third for PSG, with neither Ander Herrera nor Nemanja Matic deployed to shut down the Italian playmaker.
Solskjaer was unfortunate to lose Martial and Lingard to muscular injuries before the start of the second half, and their withdrawals not only critically diminished United’s ability to pin PSG back and defend from the front, but also served to highlight the squad’s lack of depth.
Alexis Sanchez replaced Lingard, but rather than turning to Romelu Lukaku in place of Martial, which would have enabled Marcus Rashford to move to the right flank and maintain United’s threat, Solskjaer instead brought on Juan Mata, despite his lack of pace and inability to play on the right side of a front three.
Moreover, Mata was incapable of protecting the struggling Ashley Young behind him at right-back, and that was to prove a fatal flaw as the second half wore on as Di Maria tore the veteran apart — avenging a cynical first-half shove into the advertising hoardings — with his direct running, pace and trickery.
His cross for Mbappe’s goal, which was made possible when Young was caught out of position in no-man’s-land, came seven minutes after Di Maria had created PSG’s opener. Pinpoint delivery from a corner by the man who cost United a then-British record £59.7m when he arrived from Real Madrid in 2014 led to Presnel Kimpembe escaping Matic and volleying home at the far post.
But for the saves of David De Gea, United would have lost by a heavier margin, but this was still their heaviest European defeat at Old Trafford; prior to this, United had not been beaten by more than one goal at home in over 60 years. For once, Solskjaer has a negative milestone with his name on it.
Only the wildest optimist would suggest that United have a hope of overturning this defeat in three weeks, but there is a bigger picture: the manager’s position. This was the first time that Solskjaer’s credentials have taken a jolt and that the reality check came in the Champions League is not good news for him. United need a coach to make a difference at this level, in the way that Tuchel did by overcoming injury and tactical headaches to secure victory.
Solskjaer can still prove his worth in upcoming fixtures against Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City, but he needs to deliver in at least two of those games to prove he can be an option for the United hierarchy in the long term. His task will be made harder should Lingard and Martial be sidelined for any length of time.
Having a good run in the Premier League is one thing, but doing it against the big boys at the sharp end of the Champions League is something else. On Tuesday, Solskjaer failed that test and, for the dreamers who had already anointed him as the best man to take the team forward, this was a night when the full scale of the task hit home and it was suggested that he is not the man for the job, after all.