There have been many questions asked about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s position at Manchester United in recent weeks, but he answered plenty of them by masterminding another dramatic win over Paris Saint-Germain.
On Tuesday night, some 19 months on from the most significant victory of his coaching career, the Norwegian led his side to another fully deserved yet surprising victory at the Parc des Princes, with the Red Devils this time triumphing 2-1 thanks to goals from Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford.
The stakes may not have been as high. In March 2019, United were trailing 2-0 on aggregate going into the second leg of their Champions League last-16 meeting with PSG in the French capital. This latest encounter was merely the opening fixture of their respective group-stage campaigns.
However, the taste of victory was arguably even sweeter for Solskjaer. Last time, he had nothing to lose; this time, there were those arguing his job was on the line, given United’s mediocre start to the season.
Indeed, he arrived with a side that had won just two of their opening four Premier League games, conceding 12 goals in the process.
To make matters worse, they were going up against a PSG team not only blessed with one of the most fearsome forward lines in world football, but also one that had seemingly got over their Champions League block by reaching last season’s final. What’s more, the French champions hadn’t lost a Champions League group stage game at home since 2004.
However, any doubts over Solskjaer’s tactical acumen were put to bed after a perfectly executed game plan which saw them claim all three points.
Admittedly, Thomas Tuchel’s team were a disappointment, particularly in the first half. PSG were slow, ineffectual and, at times, petulant, but that should take nothing away from United’s well-drilled display.
“You need to do everything right; you can’t have a moment when you blink” Solskjaer had told BT Sport pre-match and, arguably, the only United player to lose focus for a second was Anthony Martial, who gifted the hosts an equaliser midway through the second half.
However, it proved the visitors’ one lapse in concentration, the one mistake in an otherwise flawless gameplan from Solskjaer, who had changed United’s system by playing with three at the back in an attempt to suffocate Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Angel di Maria.
Axel Tuanzebe was handed his first start since December 18, replacing the injured Harry Maguire alongside Victor Lindelof and Luke Shaw at the heart of the defence, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Alex Telles, who was making his debut, deployed as wing backs. It was a bold move by Solskjaer – but it worked.
For all the criticism of United’s defending in recent weeks – which has been thoroughly deserved – they were superb from a collective perspective. Six tackles from Wan-Bissaka, seven clearances from Tuanzebe, three clearances from Fred; everybody played their part in nullifying Neymar and co.
The relentless Scott McTominay, who was again selected alongside Fred in midfield to act as a shield for the defence, chased down every second ball.
Fernandes, captaining the side in Maguire’s absence, opened the scoring at the second attempt with a retaken penalty but arguably his most important contribution in the first half was chasing back deep into his own half to disrupt a PSG counterattack.
Time and time again, Tuanzebe, Lindelof and Wan-Bissaka were there to deny Mbappe with perfectly timed last-ditch challenges, and on the rare occasions that the home side were given a sight of goal, David de Gea repelled everything that was thrown at him.
The Spaniard pulled off three world-class saves to reinforce his stats as United’s first-choice goalkeeper by denying Di Maria, Mbappe and Neymar.
In recent games, United have looked lost, devoid of structure and a clear, coherent plan. However, on their return to Paris, a city which held so many happy memories for the players and the manager, United rediscovered their old self-belief, playing with a conviction that showed that they continue to have the utmost trust in one another.
While it took a brilliantly taken Rashford goal in 87th minute to seal the victory, the late winner was nothing less than Solskjaer’s side deserved for having controlled the game from kick off.
It was another perfect night in Paris and a dream beginning in Group H for United. Of course, as Rashford pointed out immediately afterwards, they must now build on this result and climb the Premier League standings.
They can approach that task with renewed confidence, though, both in themselves and their manager. Against PSG, Solskjaer once again silenced his critics in sensational style.