As a chastened Manchester United turn back to the Premier League, where their aim of securing a top-four finish will be tested by the visits of Manchester City and Chelsea, at least they can dispense with the nostalgia bordering on superstition that came with Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s mission to rejuvenate his old club.
Barcelona 2019 did not remotely resemble Barcelona 1999, except in that fact that United trailed for most of the game. The more exact parallel was with Barcelona 1994, where Alex Ferguson’s United were humbled 4-0 by the team of Hristo Stoichkov, Romário and a certain Josep Guardiola in a group game defeat that left the English champions unable to advance into the Champions League knockout stages.
This was the period when Ferguson had finally cracked the domestic scene. His side would win four of the first five Premier League titles, but was being made to realise there were still enormous strides to take in Europe. “The 1994-95 season was becoming a sequence of disasters,” Ferguson said of it later, knowing Eric Cantona’s Crystal Palace meltdown was still to come. “I felt like the little Dutch boy trying to plug holes in the dyke with his fingers.”
Ferguson’s solution was to disband his first title-winning team and begin to build another one, moving out Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis to bring in Andy Cole and start to promote some of the homegrown players who had won the Youth Cup in 1992. Solskjær is now at a similar crossroads without the league championship trophy being anywhere near the Old Trafford sideboard.
No one expects United to reach Barcelona’s standards right now – there are very few teams who can – but Solskjær himself admitted last week that there is too large a gap at domestic level between his side and Manchester City and Liverpool. If results in the next couple of weeks do not go his way, people will soon be adding Tottenham, Chelsea or Arsenal to that list. United are currently in sixth place, and facing the possibility of missing out on a Champions League finish.
José Mourinho was dismissed when United slipped too far off the Premier League pace. While Solskjær has done an impressive job in overseeing an upturn in results, the danger remains that the season will end in anticlimax, with Paris in March just a pleasant memory rather than a portent of exciting times to come.
The United board were aware of this possibility when they appointed Solskjær full-time but decided against waiting until the end of the season when the club’s situation would be more clear. That was fair enough – the Norwegian had not only done sufficiently well to satisfy most people that he deserved the job, he had also made such a positive impression it would have been difficult for any outside candidate to come in and follow him. Yet had United stuck to their original plan there would at least have been the sense of a fresh start next season, either with Solskjær confirmed or replaced. Now, unless the manager can engineer another dramatic recovery after five defeats in seven games, a feeling of drift could well persist through summer and into the following season.
Cheery optimist though he is, it is becoming harder for Solskjær to pick out any positives from United’s recent showings. Even David de Gea was at fault at the Camp Nou, Paul Pogba put a considerable distance between himself and the possibility of a summer move to Real Madrid, and if Marcus Rashford really has admirers willing to part with £100m for him they must have been disappointed he could not make more of the early chance that would have given United some much needed self-belief.
There is no particular stigma attached to being bamboozled by Lionel Messi – it is the modern defender’s lot in life, though even taking Luke Shaw’s suspension into account it was a surprise to see United line up with Chris Smalling and Phil Jones in central defence. With the exception of Victor Lindelöf, out of position at left-back, four of that back five played in the group stage defeat at Basel in 2011 that saw Ferguson’s United out of the Champions League by Christmas.
Then there were the players who failed to start against Barcelona. Solskjær batted away criticism of Romelu Lukaku’s first leg performance only to drop him a week later, which would have been fine if Anthony Martial and Rashford had clicked in the way the manager must have hoped. Unfortunately they could not. Lukaku now has the clear sense that he does not enjoy Solskjær’s full confidence in big games and United are no closer to resolving the conundrum they bought themselves when bringing the striker in from Everton. Namely that to get the best out of him you have to play in a certain way, which is not necessarily the quick passing, fast-breaking style favoured by the others.
Lukaku does at least weigh in with goals, even if Pogba has overtaken him as top scorer, whereas Alexis Sánchez remains an expensive mistake. Anyone can see his move to Manchester has not worked out, despite a relatively lively 10 minutes in Barcelona, but the polite applause that greeted his arrival against his former club was revealing. Barcelona do not miss him, United were unlikely to be rescued by him. Sánchez is simply an irrelevance, a vaguely embarrassing one for United considering his wages but one they have no choice but to countenance in the absence of likely takers.
United need their game-face back on at Everton on Sunday, because they cannot afford another defeat. Points against City and Chelsea would be welcome, but United have three tough games left before Huddersfield and Cardiff provide a more gentle end to the season, and three more wins from the remaining five games are unlikely to be enough to guarantee a top-four finish.
Solskjær may not yet feel like the boy with his finger in the dyke but he will be already familiar with the idea that he is managing a club where crises can come in waves.