Manchester United fans were probably concerned when they saw the draw for the Champions League group stage. In Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig, they had been pitted against two of the four semi-finalists from last year’s competition. Together with Champions League debutants Istanbul Başakşehir, it was a difficult trio of opponents for United to be drawn with.
And yet, after two games played, it’s United who top the group after defeating PSG in Paris and annihilating RB Leipzig at Old Trafford. What looked like a group that could be problematic for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men could now be settled if United can beat Istanbul home and away in their next two Champions League matches.
It’s no surprise that United’s odds have shortened in the UEFA Champions League odds, given the nature of their impressive victories over PSG and Leipzig. It’s further proof that when it comes to Europe’s premier club competition, Solskjaer has a unique ability to bring the absolute best out of his team. United’s start to their group stage campaign has been reminiscent of their performances in the 2018-19 Champions League, where United beat PSG against the odds in the last 16 before succumbing to Barcelona in the quarter-finals. For whatever reason, Solskjaer seems to know how to get the job done in major European matches.
The team’s prowess in Europe has been at odds with their domestic form. The recent league defeat to Arsenal at Old Trafford means that United are still without a home league win this season, a statistic which will be unfamiliar to supporters given the club’s traditionally excellent record at home. In the league, United have often looked lethargic, defensively inept, and lacking in ideas. Solskjaer himself has taken criticism for this, with pundits questioning why he can’t get the team performing to as high levels in the league as in the Champions League.
It’s clear that Solskjaer relishes the big occasions, and this is borne out by his results in big Champions League matches. It was seen as unlikely that United would get six points from their opening matches against PSG and Leipzig, but Solskjaer got his tactics spot on in both games. In Paris, the team produced a measured, assured performance, reducing PSG to minimal chances while posing a real threat themselves. When you have a player with the mercurial talent of Marcus Rashford, it’s vital to simply stay in the game, and that’s what United did before Rashford fired home an explosive late winner.
Against Leipzig, it was an altogether more dominant performance, as Solskjaer adopted a midfield diamond to cope with the German side’s considerable attacking threat. Rashford was on fire once more, netting a hat-trick in a 5-0 demolition job, with Solskjaer receiving a great deal of praise for his tactical acumen.
Irrespective of their form in the Premier League, it feels as though the Champions League is a competition where United could have great success this season. There is not the same requirement for sustained consistency in Europe as there is in the domestic league, and this could play into Solskjaer’s hands – a manager who has a knack for surprising opponents with tactical shifts in big games. By the time May comes around, it will have been 13 years since United last won the Champions League. Judging by the early signs this season, there is a chance Solskjaer could play his part in ending that drought in 2021.