Reaction as United are eliminated from the Champions League.
Manchester United are out of Europe and though the temptation is to try and look at the bright side and look to one or two moments in the tie where the team might have looked to cause an upset against a Barcelona team that isn’t as great as it was, planning for the club’s progression requires a pragmatic and realistic look.
As impressive as Ole has done (and I stand by the opinion that it is an impressive job so far), he is not a magician and the problems are too numerous and prominent to paper over for any serious length of time. Those problems were evident as the club struggled to beat Watford and West Ham – it was never going to be the case that United could pull something out of the bag here.
This Manchester United team are just too passive and not combative enough – overall quality was the reason for the gulf tonight, but at least if they had some of the fighting qualities as a unit that seemed present in only a couple of individuals then there might have been some encouragement.
This writer has opined on numerous occasions that Manchester United will have defensive issues for as long as two or more of Smalling, Jones and Young play; having them alongside each other presents a big weak spot for any attack to exploit and punish. Put them against one of the best players in the world and the outcome was predictable. In that respect, you can hardly blame those defenders because it was what it was always going to be. From the moment they combined to present Messi with an opportunity when he needs no invitation, it was merely a matter of how heavy the defeat and if it would turn into an embarrassment.
Could you criticise Ole? Perhaps. The selection dilemma was somewhat put upon him but did he make the best of what he had? Moving Lindelof to the right weakened the middle of an already vulnerable defence and going with the experience of Jones over Dalot paid no dividends. Ole should have maybe known better after a similar experiment started horribly in Paris and only Eric Bailly’s injury on that occasion saved blushes.
Ole had hoped to exploit the space on the pitch by positioning his forwards in a similar way to how they played at Spurs and there were at least one or two early signs of ambition before Messi’s first ended the tie as a competition. Again, though, perhaps it should have been a more sensible approach. Rashford didn’t track Alba – he apparently wasn’t tasked with this job, but someone ought to have been, and you have to think maybe having Lingard working on the right might have delayed the inevitable.
It is a point made by many that this team contained a few remnants from the Ferguson-era. Whilst these are, to many, (mostly) players United should dispense with, it should be remembered that these are the only players the club have with league-winning experience at the club. Are those players more, or less, disappointing than their colleagues who are deemed to have the lofty potential and yet consistently fail to display it?
On a night like tonight it is difficult to be too critical of, say, Pogba for not dominating the game, or Rashford for not having a ‘coming of age’ night, because there were far too many obstacles and hurdles elsewhere in the team.
Still, you look for positives where you can find them and hope that individually some players can offer a glimmer of hope moving forward. Few players emerge on that score with any credit, with Scott McTominay topping the list. The youngster was preferred to Matic and this was one selection he got right. United need reinforcement in these areas but he is the one midfielder the club have whose stock is high.
Expect Ole to come in for plenty of criticism and whilst there are certainly some valid points, it’s always worth mentioning that this result and performance is what we should expect from that Barcelona team against this Manchester United team.
The manager is stuck with a catch-22 for the rest of the season as he must continue to stick with the senior players; one source last week said that Solskjaer has been told ‘anything else’ than what he has achieved already is a bonus, meaning he won’t be judged too harshly if the team fail to qualify for this competition for next year. Yet that remains the aim in order to maximise the opportunity to improve so he cannot afford to risk wholesale changes at this stage.
All hope of any comeback was extinguished by a David De Gea error too common over the last year to be dismissed as rare. In the time since the World Cup we have seen a few of these costly mistakes, and yet he has made some of his best ever saves. But with high profile ricks in the World Cup and now the latter stages of the Champions League, his reputation has took the consequential hit. He’s still United’s best player – by some distance – and if not for his save against Young Boys in the group, the club wouldn’t even be at this stage.
But talk of an exit is only likely to intensify and if tonight feels like a watershed moment in terms of a transitional point for the club (the latest of many?) you might expect that error to be the unfortunate footnote to the Old Trafford career of a player whose talent deserved better than the medals he was ultimately rewarded with.
Likewise Paul Pogba; a conversation of this nature cannot fail to include him. Too often tonight he was caught dwelling on the ball and on more than one occasion his reaction to being easily dispossessed was so petulant you half-wondered if it belonged to the Sergio Ramos school of attracting yellow cards. Pogba was poor but wasn’t culpable; he was on the periphery, looking only a shadow of the player he can be but a much-too-comfortable fit of the player he unfortunately all-too-often is.
He was so much on the periphery that it gives further ammunition to both the camp who think he should be sold and the camp who think such an attitude is nonsense; in some ways, his greatest ability has been reflective of Jose Mourinho’s at United, managing to convince his supporters that he is the victim of a set-up simply not designed to give him the resources to flourish.
It’s difficult to advocate the selling of two genuine star names, particularly when United’s squad is so relatively weak, and they are not exactly desperate for the money for regeneration.
Still, as with every summer, it will be a case of praying that for once the right changes are finally made.