Man Utd: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer faces ‘very important’ Champions League game

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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has lost seven of his 11 Champions League games as Manchester United manager

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer accepts Manchester United’s Champions League group stage game against Villarreal on Wednesday is “very important”.

Victory though, is by no means certain.

Solskjaer’s side opened this season’s competition with a shock 2-1 defeat by Swiss side Young Boys two weeks ago. The result was a disappointment – and for the manager, there is a worrying statistic to go with it.

Solskjaer has now been in charge for seven of United’s 54 Champions League defeats – or 13% of them. That’s despite the fact that he has only managed the club through 11 games in the competition.

As he prepares for the Old Trafford visit of Villarreal – who beat United in last May’s Europa League final – Solskjaer is under pressure to engineer a drastic improvement.

The manager does not just need a win on Wednesday to reset his side’s European campaign. After defeats by West Ham and Aston Villa over the past week, he also has to stop the negative chatter that accompanies any sequence of disappointing results becoming something far more serious.

“You need 10 or 12 points to go through,” said Solskjaer. “If you have one or zero points from two games, you need four wins.

“It is a very important game. The focus is on three points and looking what we can do better from the Europa final.”

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It has not all been bad in the Champions League.

Solskjaer oversaw one of United’s great European nights – the 3-1 away win over Paris St-Germain in the last 16 in March 2019, which overturned a 2-0 deficit from the home leg and took his side into the quarter-finals.

Last season, the 5-0 triumph over RB Leipzig was the club’s biggest Champions League win since 2013 and their biggest at Old Trafford since the 7-1 thrashing of Roma in 2007.

But Manchester United have never started a European campaign by losing their first two games. The pressure is on to avoid an unwanted piece of history.

“The pressure is a privilege,” said Solskjaer. “To work in this environment, you have to embrace that pressure.

“We’re in a results business. We’re here to win. I have been backed and clearly we’ve improved and expectations have improved, with the signings and better performances.

“The progress and the process has worked well. But I’m here to win – don’t think twice about that.”

There have been similar threads running through United’s seven Champions League defeats, and their losses this season.

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High-profile errors have proved costly in defeats by PSG, Barcelona, Leipzig, Young Boys and, most famously, Basaksehir – when Demba Ba was left completely unmarked as United attacked at a corner and was allowed to run free to the other end and score. All those mistakes were avoidable.

Then there have been issues with the formation, with Solskjaer tending to tinker with his preferred 4-2-3-1 for European ties. Against Barcelona at Old Trafford in the 2019 quarter-final, it was an odd 5-1-2-2, with Luke Shaw as a third central defender, and a 4-3-3 for the return leg.

It is the perceived lack of a coherent strategy that has left some, including the Norwegian’s former United team-mate Gary Neville, to question what United’s style of play actually is.

“Of course you are working on your style of play, on patterns, on your in-possession game and out-of-possession game,” said Solskjaer.

“Against Aston Villa, we attacked maybe too fast. I don’t think I’ve seen any games with less efficient playing time. Forty-five minutes the referee gave us. Normally you’re up to 55-60.”

Then there is the repeated criticism of Brazilian midfielder Fred – especially when he is paired in midfield with Scott McTominay. Many critics argue the duo combined are too defensive and lack creativity.

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“We’ve had many good results with those two, with the energy they give us, the way they break up play,” said Solskjaer. “I can trust them to give everything, always.”

Solskjaer’s position is protected to some extent by the three-year contract he was awarded on 24 July, when executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward said the club were “more confident than ever” it was a move in the right direction under their manager.

But results can change perceptions quickly – and at a club the size of United, losing three games in a row will inevitably lead to talk of a crisis.

Solskjaer is acutely aware of the demands he must meet.

“At this club, we have an obligation to win and we have an obligation to win in a certain style,” he said.

“Sometimes that’s risky and you lose one or two. Lately we’ve lost one or two, we changed the team for the Carabao Cup and the consequence is you’re out of the cup.

“But we’ll get there. Hopefully we’ll get there around April or May, challenging for the trophies we’d like to see back at Old Trafford.”

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