KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTS: Even before Manchester United’s manager and his players had boarded their flight back from Leipzig the airwaves were hot with the rantings of fans angry at the awful manner of their descent from Champions League to Europa League.
Most of the clubs in the English Premier League would be delighted with the assurance of a continued presence and accompanying revenue from one of the two major European club competitions. But United are not ‘most clubs’. The weight of historical expectation is a heavy burden.
Football is a team game but blame is individual. In United’s terms it is usually focused on executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward for not buying the right players and on manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for not selecting the players at his disposal in the right formation.
This time blame attaches squarely to the manager. The 3-2 defeat in Leipzig was a scoreline which flattered United. Late goals from Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes kept the tie alive until the final whistle since they had needed ‘only’ a draw to progress.
Overall fault lay in sleepy defending in the opening minutes which gifted goals to Angelino and Amadou Haidara. The suicidal need to fight back from early goals has been a common thread in United’s Premier League season. Hence this latest gift-giving was no surprise and bad news ahead of Saturday’s Old Trafford derby with neighbours City. #
The latest distraction aroused by Mino Raiola, Paul Pogba’s agent, on the eve of the game, was no excuse. Raiola had told an Italian newspaper that the French midfielder wants to quit United as soon as possible. But this was no excuse for his team-mates: Pogba and Raiola have been playing mind games ever since the player’s £90m return to Old Trafford in 2016.
Solskjaer’s failure to organise defence is the obvious charge to lay at his door, exacerbated by his tactical indecision. United opened with three men at the back and handed Leipzig all the space they needed to decide the match. Later Solskjaer went to a flat four-man back line. Too late. The injury absences of Anthony Martial and Edinson Cavani were irrelevant. United’s weaknesses were both defensive and tactical.
The Champions League is no place in which to experiment. If United are to maintain their world-beating sponsorship magnetism they need to be playing consistently at the highest level and winning trophies. Under Solskjaer they are winning prizes only for entertainment value. This cannot continue much longer particularly while Mauricio Pochettino remains available.
Captain Harry Maguire said: “We have to go out there and be aggressive, win the first ball, win the second balls and defend crosses, it’s the basics of football SWe didn’t do that. It’s a tough group but we thoroughly felt we should get through. We worked so hard last year to reach this competition. I don’t want to look at excuses. It doesn’t matter what shape you are, if you can’t defend crosses you’re going to lose matches.”
Solskjaer said: “We didn’t perform as a team well enough. That is the manager’s responsibility. We never got going until they got the second goal. You can’t say that we were good enough. We weren’t good enough. We had to defend crosses into the box and we just didn’t deal with them.”
He denied Raiola’s comments had disrupted preparations, saying: “The squad is fine – they are a team and they stick together. As soon as Paul’s agent realises it is a team sport the better. I don’t want to spend energy on that. I am not going to talk about Paul’s agent any more.”
As for the disruptive Pogba, the end is in sight which is no bad thing. His contract expires next summer though it includes the option of a one-year extension to 2022. The only question now is who goes soonest: Pogba or Solskjaer?