Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United reached a season-defining crossroad on Tuesday evening. On one side a delicious long-term contract awaited the Norwegian; a plane ticket back to footballing obscurity in Scandinavia on the other side.
It would be rash to label PSG’s visit to Old Trafford this week as a one-off audition for Solskjaer to bag the full-time managerial role but it is within tests of that particular magnitude which managers are categorised and assessed with intense scrutiny.
Ultimately, Solsjkaer was out of luck and on another day the scoreline might have read differently.
If the challenge wasn’t already intense enough at 2-0 down, Paul Pogba’s late red card has left United requiring a minor miracle in Paris in three weeks’ time to emerge as quarter-finalists, despite the fact the Frenchman’s mediocre performance was a major factor behind the defeat.
Make no mistake about it, Pogba, valued at £72million by Transfermarkt, is unstoppable on his day, but Thomas Tuchel’s tactical decision to deploy Marquinhos – a central defender by trade – in central midfield ensured that he never moved out of second gear.
The Brazilian attached himself to Pogba like a leech, tracking his every step with military-like efficiency and preventing United’s main source of creativity from bulldozing through the midfield. It was a lesson in top level tactical thinking for Solskjaer to ponder over as much as it was for Pogba.
Tuchel’s decision to man-mark Pogba arrived for very good reason: the 25-year-old scored eight goals and provided five assists in the ten fixtures which preceded PSG’s trip to Old Trafford.
Plan prepared, deployed and executed with devastating precision. But with the knowledge of the Ligue 1 leader’s gameplan in mind and when freed from the manacles which restrict sides with something to lose, Pogba could have been a different proposition altogether in the second leg. The red mist, however, descended and he was shown a second yellow card for a ghastly foul on Dani Alves.
Crucially, the trip to Parc des Princes would have offered Pogba a chance to redeem himself after being marshalled out of the game in Manchester.
A predominantly French fanbase whose adoration for their compatriot would only have ceased to exist for 90 minutes of chaotic club football are all too aware of his ability to shine on the biggest stage of all, so they will be delighted to see him sidelined even with memories of his no-show in the first meeting still looming large.
Pogba’s lazy challenge which seduced a deserved red card was a cowardly act of lazy defeatism which has deprived Solskjaer of his biggest weapon and simultaneously proven his questionable mentality will continue to undermine his elite technical quality.
The common denominator connecting the world’s most successful sportspeople is the never-say-die attitude which sits at the core of their psyche. Pogba’s decision to resign from the second-leg at the first glimpse of a gargantuan mountain to climb proved that particular warrior spirit remains elusive.
Everybody associated with Man United will be feeling disappointed and even betrayed by Pogba’s moment of madness, but Solskjaer could be the biggest loser with his future on the line and the latest instalment of mission impossible lying ahead in Paris.
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