After defeating Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig in their opening two group games, Manchester United fans would have laughed if you had suggested they would still end up eliminated from the Champions League at the end of the group stage. But after the recent 3-2 defeat to Leipzig in Germany, United’s remarkable Champions League capitulation was complete, and now they have only a Europa League knockout campaign to look forward to in the new year.
How it came to this is the question on every Manchester United fan’s lips. It has always felt that under coach Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s reign, it’s been two steps forward and three steps back for the team, and this is the greatest example of that feeling yet. They played brilliantly to earn six points from two extremely difficult fixtures at the beginning of their group campaign, making themselves favourites in the Champions League odds to advance to the last 16. But they came undone against İstanbul Başakşehir, losing 2-1 in Turkey, and further defeats to PSG and Leipzig were enough to leave them in third place.
It’s yet more frustration for a fanbase that have suffered plenty in recent years, with the club failing to challenge for big titles consistently since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson. In the time since their great manager’s retirement, United have won the FA Cup, EFL Cup and Europa League once apiece, but have not been able to maintain a serious challenge for the Premier League or the Champions League – the trophies supporters crave and feel their club should be winning.
There is now a growing feeling that perhaps Solskjær is not the man to lead the club to that kind of success – that his limitations as a coach are being laid bare. It must be remembered that the Norwegian was brought in on a temporary basis initially, due to the sacking of José Mourinho, and perhaps we’re now seeing Solskjær’s relative inexperience as a manager play its part in the team’s underachievement.
His tenure has been plagued with disappointments, and for every stride that United have made, there has always been another setback around the corner to offset it. This is the latest in a string of underachievement. Last season’s resurgence, which saw United embark on a fine run of form post-lockdown and finish third in the Premier League, has been undone by this failure to make the knockout stages of the Champions League. There has been no progression made in the time Solskjær has been in charge, United have merely plateaued.
The blame for the club’s failings is so often pinned on those above Solskjær, at chairman Ed Woodword and the club’s board of directors. But while there are clearly issues at the top of the club, it’s clear that the Solskjær experiment has not worked out. Much is made of the fact that United tried to lure Jürgen Klopp to Old Trafford before the German eventually went to Liverpool, and one can only wonder where Manchester United would be as a club if they had managed to convince Klopp to become a Red Devil.
As it is, United have lurched from one disappointment to another, leaving fans starved of the kind of premier success which was the norm under Ferguson. The good days will one day return, no doubt, put it’s hard to imagine they will appear while Solskjær is the man at the helm.