Manchester United had been on a gigantic wave of enthusiasm since news broke that Cristiano Ronaldo would be, as the club put it, coming home. The return against Newcastle, with Ronaldo ticking all the boxes, added to the feel-good nature of things United’s social media posts assiduously strove to create. And then, on Tuesday night in Bern in his 177th Champions League match — only Iker Casillas has played as many — CR7 scored in the 13th minute. So what was not to like?
Plenty as it turned out with Young Boys running out 2-1 winners against their fancied opponents who were a man light from the 35th minute. The defeat in their European season opener exposed some old flaws that seemed to have been papered over by the euphoria around Ronaldo.
He had done his part at the start, slotting home a skillful pass from Bruno Fernandes on the artificial pitch at The Wankdorf Stadium. But from the 25th minute — meaning it was before Aaron Wan-Bissaka clattered into left back Ulisses Garcia’s ankle and was shown the red card — United had zero shots on goal. Their opponents had 15. United had two shots in the match, their opponents 19. That isn’t quite how United can go all the way as manager Ole Gunnar Solksjaer had predicted. For the record, Solksjaer has now lost seven of his 11 games in the Champions League as United manager.
True, Wan-Bissaka’s momentary lapse of reason well inside the opponents’ half led to an alteration of team dynamics. Jadon Sancho was sacrificed for Diogo Dalot but having to get in Raphael Varane for Donny van de Beek showed that the extent of the problem defending with 10 men was for United. Even against opponents not known for their pedigree in Europe — Young Boys’ most notable run has been the semi-finals of the European Cup in 1959. Not too long ago, against Liverpool away, Chelsea had produced a masterclass in that aspect. By that yardstick, United have a lot to learn.
United first struggled to cope with Wan-Bissaka’s loss, switched to five at the back but couldn’t prevent Moumi Ngamaleu from scoring in the 66th minute from in front of Varane. Substitute Jesse Lingard’s brain fade produced a backpass to goalie David de Gea which gave American forward Jordan Siebatcheu an opportunity to win the game deep in stoppage time.
Solskjaer backed Lingard to come good at the weekend against West Ham but said: “That’s football for you at the highest level. Lack of concentration, make a mistake and you get punished.”
The manager will have a lot to ponder over after a defeat that could bring back memories of finishing third in the group and being forced into the Europa League last term. United lost three of their last four group league games — to PSG, Istanbul Bareksheir and RB Leipzig — and all of them stemmed from either slack defending or wrong decision-making. Some of them, like replacing Ronaldo and Fernandes, and getting Varane in for Van de Beek, which snuffed out creativity in the midfield, were evident on Tuesday too. On taking Ronaldo off, Solskjaer said it was done to manage the 36-year old’s minutes.
“We know we have given ourselves a more difficult task than what we did last year. You need 10, maybe 12 points. You need to win your home games. We have got two home games next and we have got to focus on them,” said Solskjaer.
United now have a proven goalscorer in Ronaldo but Solskjaer will have to come up with a strategy to keep the supply line going for the Portuguese. On Tuesday, that wasn’t the case. And while they have added heft to their attack, United have failed to spruce up defensively. Among the defensive midfielders barring Scott McTominay, who is injured at the moment, Fred and Nemanja Matic are not at the level which United need them to operate at.
As the season progresses, Solskjaer will have to make some tough calls to keep United in contention in Europe and at home where they haven’t won the league since 2013. If not, names like Zinedine Zidane and Antonio Conte are already being linked to take over at Old Trafford.