If the protocols of VAR were followed correctly, it is doubtful that Manchester United would have progressed to the quarter-finals of the Champions League. However, the very fact they were in the position to benefit from a rather dubious application of the rules is testament to Solskjaer's tactical acumen.
First though, to that VAR decision. Presnel Kimpembe can count himself unfortunate in the extreme to have been adjudged to have handled Diogo Dalot’s stoppage time effort. Whether the France international deliberately handled the ball was subjective and in real time referee Damir Skomina elected to award a corner.
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However, the referee, having re-watched the incident, awarded a penalty that Marcus Rashford ruthlessly dispatched to send United through on away goals after a 3-1 win in Paris. The merits of the application of VAR in this instance will be long debated but, to this observer, United were the beneficiaries of a sizable slice of fortune.
“The role of the VAR is to ensure that no clearly wrong decisions are made in conjunction with the award or non-award of a penalty kick,” reads the FIFA website.
“Clearly wrong decisions”. Nope. The decision to award a corner was not “clearly wrong”; therefore, the referee should not have reviewed it. However, United and Solskjaer played the hand they were dealt; and that hand was a favourable VAR decision but also an absentee list that ran to 10+ players.
United, shorn of Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic, Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata and Ander Herrera in the midfield area somehow entered stoppage time within a goal of progressing. To give that achievement some context the Red Devils finished the match with a front six that read: Tahith Chong, Mason Greenwood, Dalot, Fred, Scott McTominay, Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku. Put simply, Solskjaer’s side had absolutely no right to be in the match, or the tie.
Yet, there they were, and Solskjaer was a worthy recipient of the post-match acclaim for what was a near perfectly executed European away day performance.
United may have got the early goal but Thomas Tuchel’s side were the dominant force for large swathes of the first half, largely due to the ineptitude of Eric Bailly. However, the withdrawal of the 24-year-old, apparently due to injury, on 36 minutes allowed United to regain a semblance of control. The platitudes that have come the way of Solskjaer rarely reference his tactical acumen but the Norwegian, who had selected the Ivorian at right-back in a rare misstep, addressed that error with the introduction of Dalot. The axis of Ashley Young and Dalot managed to contain Juan Bernat, who up until that point had the run of United’s right, scoring one and passing up the opportunity of another all inside the opening 20 minutes.
The Norwegian continues to ride the crest of a wave of goodwill that was, certainly towards the end of his tenure, not afforded to Jose Mourinho. Had, for instance, the Portuguese dispatched Ashley Young ahead of Bailly on United’s right, and had that overtly negative selection decision backfired as badly as it did in Parc de Princes on Wednesday night, then that decision might have come under some rather more pointed scrutiny than it has done.
Bailly, it turned out, was about as ill-suited to playing right-back as he was to being stationed in goal. Solskjaer could have made a like-for-like swap; he did not – instead a quick tactical tweak, not huge but impactful enough, with Dalot taking Young's stead and Young slotting in a right-back, allowing United to stem what had been a barrage down that side.
At a base level, a manager’s remit is to take a team and make them more than the sum of their parts. In the selection of Bailly, Solskjaer had failed in that respect. However, the interim manager re-jigged the system, addressed his own mistake and United emerged better equipped to get a handle on PSG.
Managers should not be judged by the players they have at their disposal but what they do with the players at their disposal, and Solskjaer has taken the players that were at Mourinho’s disposal and made more of them. The chasm between Mourinho’s Manchester United and Solskjaer’s iteration grows by the game. The fact that United were so understrength here just reinforces the point.
And this game, of all the games, was the clearest indication that Solskjaer can’t be overlooked for the role on a full-time basis. United, hamstrung by injuries, went to PSG with a clear game plan that acknowledged not only the strengths of their opponents but also their own substantial weaknesses and executed it, bar the Bailly failed experiment, near perfectly. This is not to say they weren't played off the pitch in parts, they were.
To be clear, PSG monopolised possession, and while, at times the hosts' play was mesmeric, they did not truly dominate United. Despite Tuchel's men having possession of the ball for over two thirds of the match, both sides had four shots on target. This speaks to a United side working within a well-defined system. Despite the personnel, this was not a backs-against-the-wall rearguard action but one of discipline - last-ditch tackles, while nice to look at, hint at a breakdown of the defensive system. And when his system came under renewed pressure in the second half, Solskjaer reacted again - switching to five at the back, with Young operating as a centre-back at one point, as Angel di Maria took up more advanced positions.
This victory - which made United the first team in Champions League history to qualify for the next round having lost the first leg of a knockout match at home by two or more goals - was a victory for a well thought-out plan, a victory for flexibility, and by extension a victory for Solskjaer’s tactical acumen. Much of the praise that has been aimed at the 46-year-old has centred around the lifted mood around the club and, while there is huge merit to that, the Old Trafford boss has shown himself, not for the first time this season, to be an astute tactical operator.
There will, of course, be sterner tests of Solskjaer the manager; there will, of course, be games where dubious VAR decisions cost United; there will, of course, be troughs to what has been three months of continuous peaks. However, the former Cardiff boss, relegated from the Premier League in 2014, is now the architect of United's greatest European triumph since their 2008 win.
As things stand, it does not yet look like Solskjaer has hit his ceiling as an elite-level manager. The VAR decision was not clear and obvious but Solskjaer is without a doubt the clear and obvious candidate to take United forward.
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