It was just like any other game of football, and yet the result – and the gulf in class – between Manchester United and Barcelona in their Champions League quarter final spoke volumes.
The Catalan outfit ran out 4-0 aggregate winners, with the second leg at the Nou Camp a 3-0 hammering. It was like men against boys as Lionel Messi and co continually cut through the United defence like a knife through a tapas platter.
At one point in the second half the camera panned to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who was stood deep in thought on the touchline. This was the stadium where the Norwegian scored that infamous winning goal in the Champions League final of 1999, but right now his United side look a million miles away from challenging for silverware. His face as he watched Messi make mincemeat of his players showed as much.
Perhaps Solskjaer was contemplating a summer revolution at Old Trafford, because lord knows he needs one if his side are to challenge for honours in 2019/20.
“We have to aspire to get to that level of Barcelona. We can get there but we have loads of work to do. If we want to get back to Manchester United’s true level, true traditions, we have to challenge Barcelona,” Solskjaer said in a downbeat interview afterwards.
“They were a couple of levels above over the two games.”
Barca, of course, have the ability to make any opponent look silly, but it’s not just in Europe where Manchester United have fluffed their lines. Even accounting for the tepid last days of Jose Mourinho, the club find themselves down in sixth place in the Premier League, and once again staring down the barrel of missing out on the Champions League next season.
Years of Systemic Failure
So where has it all gone wrong? Well, there is never usually a definitive answer in these situations, but clearly something has gone awry in the transfer market when you consider Manchester United’s starting eleven against Barcelona in that fateful second leg.
There are world-class talents (David de Gea, Paul Pogba) interwoven with really ordinary footballers; the likes of Phil Jones, Fred and Scott McTominay would surely struggle to get in many other Champions League sides.
And poor old Ashley Young, who at 33 years old is heading for the footballing scrapheap. A professional for nearly 17 years, Young was sent out like a lamb to the slaughter at the Nou Camp; a converted winger with ageing knees, asked to somehow stem the tide from Messi and his teammates.
Of course, in this age of social media outrage it’s easy to barrack Young for his inabilities, but surely the bigger question here is how – and why – he found himself playing left back in direct opposition to the most naturally-gifted footballer on the planet.
It’s a reflection of the awful transfer policies of Manchester United managers past and present, although Solskjaer is excused for the time being. But missing out on the Champions League will not make life any easier in bringing in top class talent, and indeed may hasten the exit of some of the club’s more capable players.
The bookies make Manchester United a 2/7 chance of missing out on a top four finish; a situation that would surely prove catastrophic.
So how does Solskjaer succeed where others before him have failed in revolutionising the fortunes of a side without a Premier League title since 2012/13?
David de Goer?
If you remember back to 2015, David de Gea would have left Old Trafford for Real Madrid but for the farcical but true story that the Galacticos’ fax machine was broken and thus the paperwork couldn’t be completed in time.
Every summer since, the Spaniard – like the Chelsea man Eden Hazard – has been linked with a move to the Bernabeu, but for one reason or another the transfer has never quite been completed.
And yet this summer, with United possibly not in next season’s Champions League, they face their toughest test yet in keeping the shot stopper on board.
At 28, De Gea knows he needs to be playing for a side challenging for honours domestically and on the continent. Forget his mistake in the Nou Camp, the Spaniard is one of the best goalkeepers on the planet, and he needs to be playing for a team that is reflective of the fact.
Will this summer be the time that David says adios to Old Trafford? Solskjaer may have to build his revolution from back to front.
A Case for the Defence
Jones, Smalling, Lindelof, Young.
For generations of Manchester United fans who can remember the Bruce-Pallister school of defending, or when Jaap Stam and Gary Neville did their best impersonation of an immoveable wall, this current crop leaves a little to be desired.
To be fair, United have been beset by defensive injuries this term, and have struggled to put out a settled four in consecutive weeks.
But it’s obvious to even armchair supporters that defending is an area of clear weakness for United, and if the club is to have aspirations of success in 2019/20 and beyond they must surely bring in a couple of new faces to shore up that rearguard.
United have conceded more goals than any of the other ‘big six’, more than Wolves and even Newcastle and the same amount as Everton; it’s simply not good enough for a club with major aspirations.
The Pogba Problem
There’s no two ways about it: Paul Pogba is an extremely gifted footballer.
He is a huge presence in midfield, a massive personality, and he has that sort of Zlatan-esque magnitude about him that all big clubs savour.
But it also cannot be ignored that he has a habit of going missing in games.
If Pogba has an off day against Cardiff at home, for example, then it’s not necessarily a big deal.
But when he is practically anonymous in a Champions League quarter final, you know that something isn’t quite right.
The Frenchman is another one of those boom or bust players: do you persevere with him and hope he reproduces his best form over a prolonged period of time, or do you cut your losses and try and recoup your spending on him?
That’s a conundrum for Solskjaer to solve this summer.
One of the most appealing aspects of Ole’s caretaker tenure in the Old Trafford hotseat was the attacking abandon with which his side played.
That, ultimately, was what got him the job on a permanent basis as United routinely outscored their opposition.
The Norwegian must be strong and stick to his principles, because this is a club for whom attacking football is in the DNA.
A front two of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, with Jesse Lingard in behind, could really work, and if he can find a way to get the best out of Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez then even better.
Bolster the defence and set your attackers free….could Ole oversee a Manchester United revolution next season? Maybe the Barcelona defeat could be the best thing that’s happened to them in quite some time….