Eighteen years ago, during Cristiano Ronaldo’s first Champions League campaign, Manchester United registered an all-time low two shots on target during a game.
A shooting display like that had not been put on by the club since then, until Ronaldo’s second European debut for the club this morning (AEST), during the shock 2-1 defeat away to Young Boys.
It makes it all the more peculiar when you consider the embarrassment of attacking riches United have at their disposal with Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho, Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard all involved in the game.
Of course, that stat comes with the astrix that United were playing nearly an hour with 10 men after Aaron Wan-Bissaka was sent off for a reckless and clumsy challenge in the first half.
Ronaldo did have a penalty shout in the second half, with a potential red card to go with it to even up the sides, but it was turned down, much to the frustration of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after the game.
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“He shoves him with his arm and he’s one-on-one with the keeper. But he probably didn’t do it as he would have had to send him off and that’s sometimes what you get with young refs,” he said after the game.
Amid the carnival atmosphere and fanfare that has greeted the three summer signings of Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane, perhaps the most important signing was the one that was made at the start of the transfer window, before any of the trio had even arrived.
Manchester United had tied Solskjaer down to a new three-year deal to extend his stay at Old Trafford until at least 2024, with the option of an extra year, on the back on a second-placed Premier League finish and a Europa League final appearance.
Barring the absence of a top-class defensive midfielder, he now boasts one of the best squads in the world, and the pressure is on him to prove it.
Defeat to Young Boys means Solskjaer’s Champions League record now reads seven defeats from 11 games following the dour group-stage exit last season and the Old Trafford higher-ups will be sweating over a repeat of that now.
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United were hardly dominant before the red card, but after it Solskjaer allowed his side to sit back and try to hold on for the 1-0 win, something very difficult to do with an hour left of a game. After conceding, he then decided that a draw would suffice, took off his two most attacking threats in Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes and replaced them with Nemanja Matic and Jesse Lingard, while also playing five at the back.
Those tactics failed him in the final seconds of added time, when Lingard’s careless back-pass was intercepted and United boarded the plane home with nothing to show from their trip to Switzerland.
Comparisons were quickly drawn with Thomas Tuchel, who managed to expertly shift his Chelsea tactics against a far more dangerous opposition in Liverpool when in the same situation after a red card. The Blues came away with a well-earned point.
It posed more questions of Solskjaer’s ability to manage his team of superstars and how again he fell short tactically to a team considered the weakest in their group.
“Of all the managers in the top-four fight, Ole hasn’t proved he can win at this level yet,” ex-Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand told BT Sport. “He’s done what he’s been asked to do up until this point. Now it’s D-Day.
“It’s his squad, shaped by him, a wonderful transfer window just gone, bringing in winners, people that can change the culture of this club.
“Now he’ll be judged properly. Now you’ve got to convert that to trophies and if he doesn’t his head will be on the chopping block like any other manager.”
Another of Solskjaer’s former teammates, Paul Scholes, agreed and insisted that he must win a trophy at Manchester United this season, hinting that he is the weak link when compared to title rivals Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City.
“It’s been a really quiet time for United over the last few years and Ole has built a squad that should be capable of winning the top prizes,” Scholes said. “There’s not a lot of difference in the top four squads, the only difference is probably in the managers. Ole has to win something this season.”
While still lacking tactically, what Solskjaer does have on his side is man-management skills which are second to none and why so many of United’s newest stars were so keen to play for him.
That will be key in managing the growing number of egos in the dressing room, with the happiness of Ronaldo and Paul Pogba key in whether this will be a successful season or not.
From now, there are no more excuses for Solskjaer and he will need to find the right answers quickly.