So Manchester United need a 2-1 win in the Camp Nou to progress. Can anybody think of a time when they’ve done that? Yes, you at the back there – baby-faced man in the grey V-neck?
Really, this cannot go on. Sooner or later Ole Gunnar Solskjær is going to have to do something as manager that doesn’t immediately draw comparison with Sir Alex Ferguson. Perhaps he will inspire a victory away to Barcelona – something United have never achieved. Perhaps there will even be two late goals, one prodded home at the back post in injury time after a corner has been flicked on. But if he does, it will feel less like football management than witchcraft. Give it Melisandre till the end of the season.
Wednesday seemed a night on which a number of doubts coalesced. There’s no disgrace in losing 1-0 to Barcelona and, while United will have to do something they have never done before if they are to progress, at this stage of the last round they had to do something no side had ever done before.
There was much in the performance, at least after an oddly diffident opening 20 minutes, for Solksjaer to draw encouragement from. United pressed Barça ferociously and for long spells made them look sloppy in possession. Scott McTominay is beginning to blossom as a midfielder in his own right, rather than just being a bloke who is emphatically not Paul Pogba, as he often seemed to be under José Mourinho. If Diogo Dalot and Marcus Rashford had been a little more clinical when chances presented themselves, United might even have won.
But the truth is Barcelona were relatively comfortable after half-time. They survived their wobble, realised that United are really only dangerous on the counterattack (as Louis van Gaal noted when, with a robustness that obfuscated his point, he accused Solskjær of being a coach “who parks the bus”, sat deep and denied United’s rapid wide men space to run into. Solskjær had no solution.
That’s only in part a criticism of him. United don’t have a picklock with the tight technical skills to undo a massed defence – something that draws questions, again, about Pogba, a player who seems in danger of falling into the Gerrard Trap of being neither one thing nor the other. In a world in which midfields tend to fall into two bands, he has elements of both but not enough of either. He might have thrived as a box-to-box player in the eighties, but these days, at the very highest level, he seems too ebullient to function as a holder, but not quite deft enough to be a true No 10.
In isolation, perhaps, the defeat wouldn’t matter too much for Solskjær. It’s Barcelona, it’s the quarter-final of the Champions League. It happens. But it’s his fourth defeat in five games in the middle of which, Ed Woodward’s touch as sure as ever, he was given a three-year contract.
In 1973 the Yale professor Harold Bloom proposed his theory of the Anxiety of Influence, positing an Oedipal relationship between writers and their literary forebears. John Milton, for instance, he argued could truly excel as a poet only after he had symbolically murdered his great idol Edmund Spenser. William Blake, likewise, had to cast off Milton. A similar dynamic can be seen in football, perhaps most strikingly in the case of Mauricio Pochettino.
That he is of the school of Marcelo Bielsa is obvious but so too his discomfort in talking about the influence of Bielsa. He has moved beyond the manager who came into his bedroom one night when he was 14 and made him a footballer on the basis of his legs. He is grateful to Bielsa for the start he gave him and the principles he instilled, but he also sees his flaws and does things differently. A sense of loyalty seems to inhibit him from discussing that divergence too openly.
Solskjær, at some point, will have to go through a similar process, made all the harder by the fact that the symbolic father he has to knife tends to sit a few rows behind him at games, while the stand he faces from the bench is named after him. Invoking “the Boss” at every turn was an effective tool to signal his difference from the previous regime and to highlight a return to the United Way, but just as McTominay had to be more than just not-Pogba, so Solskjær has to be more than just not-Mourinho. And as, say, Dynamo Kyiv have found, a football club cannot go through life living forever in the shadow of a previous coach.
In that, Solskjær’s opposite number on Wednesday, Ernesto Valverde, perhaps offers a valuable lesson. He played at Barcelona under Johan Cruyff and was appointed in part because he is of the school. And yet he was prepared to risk the wrath of the devout and take the most un-Cruyffian step of protecting a lead by packing men behind the ball.
Solskjær, similarly, must find his own way and become more than merely a conduit through which the Fergusonian vibe can flow – although perhaps not until after he has followed his mentor in pulling off a stunning 2-1 win in the Camp Nou.