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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Miguel Delaney

Manchester United suffer near impossible collapse to crash out of Champions League

Photograph: Manchester United via Getty Imag

The type of collapse that, really, just shouldn’t be possible at a top club. The big question now is whether it would have been possible under a better manager.

That does not just apply to Manchester United’s dismal defeat to Leipzig on the night, and the flattery of that late comeback. It applies to the entire group.

After winning the two opening games in the manner they did, it is ridiculous that United were even in a position that they could go out in the last game, let alone that they are now out.

You can add your own line about whether it is ridiculous Ole Gunnar Solskjaer being in the position of manager.

It was even worse that they were so ill-prepared and ill-conditioned for such a decisive match. That is the greatest mark against Solskjaer, for what is his first major - and potentially defining - failure in the job. No one can argue away the variables or nuances of this. Solskjaer’s time has almost operated to this bizarre positive-negative cycle so far, but dropping out of the Champions League felt the first true drop out of that cycle. It is a low, especially given the position they were in.

It was just bad, from the start to the defending, to what was almost the indictment of the late comeback.

It is why the questions have always been there about Solskjaer, and won’t go away.

It’s impossible not to feel that this group could end up epitomise the Norwegian’s whole time at United: some great moments and rousing big wins against top sides, but ultimately no actual success or breakthrough. That is the risk he runs. That is now the real pressure on Solskjaer, even as Ed Woodward is intent on backing him.

Events will be overshadowed by more serious events in Paris, that will have a bearing on the group, but the way United lost this should not be overlooked.

Solskjaer will doubtless appeal to the “character” of the comeback, but the reality is the manner of the two goals were individual moments of chaos rather than anything to do with performance, and that United just can’t keep relying on these adrenaline rushes. That’s not the way to operate a team.

You can’t keep getting away with it. Here, it felt like the decisive reversal that has been coming for some time finally arrived. United ran out of time in the panicked end, but the game was really set by the pulsating start.

Solskjaer’s side looked stunned by the way Leipzig surged into a 2-0 lead, but the deeper problem was that it was not like the Bundesliga team just overwhelmed them.

This was as much an inevitable consequence of United’s set-up, and just how flat they were going into a game of such importance.

United were shellshocked in the first-half (Getty Images)

That beggars belief. That is what is the biggest indictment of all. United were just not primed for one of the biggest games of Solskjaer’s time so far.

The psychology was one thing, but the tactics something else.

Solskjaer set up as if he was playing for the draw United needed, but it was as if the players’ basic unfamiliarity with this set them up for the defeat. They looked like they just didn’t know how to play a back five. The nature of the goals was calamitous. For the second, by Amadou Haidara, the ball travelled from the edge of the penalty to the far post, past all five defenders.

It was just woeful.

Leipzig finally did to United what many expected them to do in the first game at Old Trafford, showing an attacking aptitude and preparation that finally seemed beyond Solskjaer.

There was then the symbolism of Paul Pogba’s performance. For all Solskjaer’s faults, his handling of the French midfielder can’t really be criticised, and it’s actually difficult not to have some sympathy with the situation he has been handed. Pogba’s problems precede him.

And yet somehow even that backfired, and looked worse for Solskjaer.

Pogba came on and changed the game, offering the composure that was so necessary against a young Leipzig side who have been prone to panic… but it was too late.

Solskjaer has generally been strong with Pogba, bravely dropping him when required, but the fair wonder here was why he didn’t bite the bullet to bring him on earlier. That will only be added to a number of questionable decisions in these last few Champions League games, that are all the more frustrating given how inspired he seemed in those first two matches.

It was as if, as the stakes have risen, his decision-making has waned.

Of course what can’t be forgotten is that implosion in Istanbul that caused so many problems. That has been another characteristic of Solskjaer’s time in the job. 

He now has one big and undeniable failure, that can’t be argued away. It will create new arguments about his capacity for the job - and put him under bigger pressure than ever before.

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