There was an eerie quality to the BT Sport analysis of Manchester United’s exit from the Champions League. At times the post-match segment was like watching a highly skilled Victorian parlour game as Paul Scholes and Rio Ferdinand accepted the challenge of describing the ineptitude of United’s start against RB Leipzig, the turgid team selection, the unchecked early gains of Julian Nagelsmann’s swift diagonal attacks – all the while managing not to mention the name of United’s manager.
Scholes in particular is a true friend in this regard. Ole Gunnar Solskjær could presumably stand on his studio desk shooting him in the neck repeatedly with a pellet gun, and Scholes would shrug and say, well, it’s undoubtedly some kind of pellet gun situation. Or, what I need here is a long-term not-being-shot identity, that’s the real issue.
And why not? Piling in on a manager is often a pointless exercise. This is a club with long-standing systemic problems. United are five points off the top of the Premier League. But the failure to analyse Solskjær’s role in United’s 3-2 defeat was a genuine omission.
This was a night where the most interesting single point of difference was Nagelsmann’s tactical supremacy in the opening 20 minutes. This period decided the match. It also flagged up the lack of clarity, of real champion-manager drive that separates Solskjær in this company, the moment United’s nice guy met a genuine cutting edge.
For 20 minutes at the start Leipzig ran straight through United. Nagelsmann’s team pressed and found no resistance, no stitching, no plan in response. Hindsight makes everything easier. But it was always coming from the moment the team sheets dropped. This was a United XI made to sit deep and play on the break – in the most literal fashion, with a back and a front and not much in between.
Faced with seven defensive outfield players, Leipzig lined up without an orthodox striker, leaving United overmanned in defence and outgunned in midfield. The double-pivot of Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay was primed for trench warfare, a Maginot line in front of the back three. Unfortunately Nagelsmann found a route through the Ardennes almost immediately, and his team just kept on pouring through.
With two minutes gone United’s full-backs had already been drawn into an outnumbered midfield. Angeliño was able to stroll through acres of empty farmland on the left flank and plant a fine left-foot volley low and hard into the corner.
Nagelsmann loves a bold start and this was his opening gambit here, a series of swift diagonal passes behind United’s flanks. Leipzig played 34 long passes in the first half, Marcel Sabitzer providing nine of them as the midfield swarmed in small packs, then moved the ball immediately out wide.
Before long it was 2-0, the goal created by the same overload of those inexplicably vacant flanks. Somehow United had three full-backs on the pitch, but also no full-backs at all. Somehow they had seven players in deep defensive areas, but were still outnumbered every time.
This wasn’t an off day, or a case of “starting slowly” as United’s captain and manager later maintained. It was what happens when a carefully honed plan meets a hopeful one. Solskjær picked a team for this game. Nagelsmann picked a plan, a set of well-drilled movements, an expectation of how the opponent would shape up, and of how his own team would press and rest in that first half.
This was a safe pair of hands up against a maniacal eye for detail; a fully realised opening assault against a manager who came to a shootout with a banana in his hand.
And still United could easily have drawn or even won, such is the trapped talent in this team. They recovered from that opening trauma. Donny van de Beek came on at half-time as United switched to a back four approximately 43 minutes too late.
Steadily the gears of the midfield began to move. Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood span wide to get the ball. But with 68 minutes gone Leipzig made it 3-0, and in horrible fashion.
Harry Maguire dithered. Justin Kluivert nipped in. The loose ball was dinked over David de Gea, who carried out a successful piece of evasive action at Kluivert’s feet. Maguire’s passing can be a real asset in a back three. In a back four he can be exposed, an elite level centre back with all the easy mobility of an abandoned alien monolith.
Greenwood was tripped for a penalty that Bruno Fernandez buried. United had 10 minutes to score twice. They almost did it too, Paul Pogba’s header followed by some late scrambles.
The key Group H defeat in Istanbul will define the campaign, and also capture its oddity. There is still something devastating in the sight of those duelling milk floats: Demba Ba sprinting away from the entire United team, pursued only by Nemanja Matic, a race to become the non-slowest man on the pitch.
Solskjær was appointed on the back of progress in the Champions League. But this is also an unforgiving place, where tactical coherence and fine point expertise is so vital. He has now lost six of his 10 Champions League matches, the worst record of any manager of any English team, despite managing the third-richest club in the world.
Is there any real sign of progress here? United have the players now, or at least most of the players. They should be at the tactical cutting edge, should be pushing forward what football can be at this level. In Leipzig they were instead the passive partners.