While Ole Gunnar Solskjaer stopped short of labelling Wednesday’s Champions League meeting with Villarreal a ‘must-win’ match, the Manchester United boss acknowledged just how perilous his team’s position would be if they fail to take three points against the Spanish visitors to Old Trafford.
“You need 10 or 12 points to go through,” said Solskjaer ahead of the game. “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 at what we can do better from the Europa [League] final.”
It’s not just United’s position in their Champions League group that would be perilous in the event of anything less than a win on Wednesday night. After defeats to Young Boys, West Ham and Aston Villa, Solskjaer would be placed under further scrutiny. His job might even be at risk.
Manchester United will be favourites to claim their first Champions League victory of the season against Villarreal, but the La Liga outfit have the potential to be the worst possible opponent at the worst possible time for Solskjaer and his players.
Indeed, the Yellow Submarine are the sort of team United tend to struggle against. Unai Emery might have become a figure of fun during his time in the Premier League, but he remains one of the best pure coaches in the Spanish game, as Real Madrid found to their frustration only a few days ago.
Despite having scored 14 goals in their previous four games, Real Madrid failed to find a way through Villarreal as they were held to a 0-0 draw on their own patch. Emery’s team were just too organised, too well-drilled, at the back for Karim Benzema and co. to make any real impression.
This could be bad news for United who often struggle to carry much of a goal threat when they are faced with a low defensive block. This was certainly the case against West Ham and Aston Villa, when Solskjaer’s lack of tactical nous was exposed by a well-coached opponent willing to sit deep for much of the match.
United’s task of breaking down Villarreal will be made even tougher by the expected absence of Luke Shaw, whose energetic bursts to the byline will be missed. Without the England international, the Spanish visitors will surely find it easier to maintain their shape and structure.
Of course, Manchester United should be well aware of Villarreal’s strength as a compact unit having lost to them only a few months ago in last season’s Europa League final. That night, Solskjaer’s side dominated possession, but could translate this into many genuine opportunities in front of goal. United were made to pay for this as they lost the penalty shootout.
Another negative defeat would underline how Manchester United, despite having signed three world class performers in the form of Cristiano Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane, have failed to make any meaningful progress. Villarreal will be used as a yardstick to measure just how far they have come.
Solskjaer has faced situations like this before. A sluggish start to the 2020/21 campaign similarly had the Norwegian on the back foot with a shock Champions League defeat to Istanbul Basaksehir prompting much debate about his future as Manchester United manager.
It’s in these situations, though, that Solskjaer tends to do his best work. All the way through his United managerial tenure, bad results have been followed by good ones just in the nick of time. However, Villarreal could ensure things get even worse for Solskjaer. It’s unlikely the Manchester United boss will lose his job on the basis of Wednesday night’s result, but it could further underline how the job he’s doing isn’t good enough.