After humbling defeats that exposed bigger-picture issues, both Man United and Chelsea turn to the FA Cup for a rebound and validation, all while their managers' long-term futures remain in the balance.
For the first time since his return to Manchester United, Old Gunnar Solskjaer must face doubts. The honeymoon was always going to end eventually, and, after two gilded months in which everything seemed to go his way, his fortune turned against Paris Saint-Germain. This month was always likely to be vital in determining whether he is appointed Manchester United manager on a permanent basis. With the Champions League test almost certainly failed, there remain three further challenges: home games against Liverpool and Manchester City in the league and, on Monday, an FA Cup fifth-round tie at Chelsea.
It had initially seemed that Solskjaer’s streak of luck was continuing as PSG lost a number of key players to injury, but it may be that the caution forced on Thomas Tuchel worked to the French club’s advantage. The result for United was that defensive failings familiar from the last couple of seasons were exposed, while the loss of Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial just before halftime denied the club pace in wide areas that has been such a hallmark of the attacking style since Solskjaer took over. With Solskjaer confirming Friday the two will be out for 2-3 weeks, they will be missed vs. Chelsea–Lingard in particular–given how Blues left back Marcos Alonso likes to get forward and so is vulnerable to players making runs behind him.
In a sense, though, United’s failings against PSG were largely the result of deep-rooted causes. This is a bizarrely unbalanced squad, built with little thought of an overall plan. Once Martial and Lingard had gone, Solskjaer’s options were limited. Juan Mata is, of course, technically gifted, but he can slow the game down, which was the last thing United needed. Alexis Sanchez has never settled in Manchester and seems to have lost his pace as well as his form.
Perhaps Solskjaer could have brought on Romelu Lukaku, whether to operate wide or to play through the center with Marcus Rashford moving to the flank, and maintained the physical pressure on PSG, but such suggestions are easy to make with hindsight. (There was even a strange thought in the final 10 minutes as United huffed and puffed in search of a goal that would have at least given it a glimmer of a chance in the second leg, that it could have done with the departed Marouane Fellaini to come off the bench and spread a little chaos).
Solskjaer was never going to be able to change the bigger-picture issues overnight. Toxic as the situation under Jose Mourinho had become, and refreshing as Solskjaer’s presence has been, United still has major issues of scouting, youth development and recruitment, all of which have stagnated since the Glazer takeover. Those are issues that will take time to resolve.
The test now for Solskjaer is to prove his mettle in challenging circumstances. It’s not even necessarily about winning those three games. It's more about demonstrating he can set a side up against high-class opposition, that his remarkable start was not just the result of a straightforward fixture-list, that he can adjust to setbacks like the loss of Martial and Lingard.
Although a top-four finish probably remains the priority, the FA Cup is United’s only realistic hope of silverware this season. Notoriously it is a trophy that tends to portend the departure of the winning manager (since 2007, eight of the 10 managers who have won the FA Cup were not in the same job a year later, and another, Arsene Wenger, departed within a year of his third success in that period), but if Solskjaer’s reign is to be temporary, there is no doubt he would love to crown it with the Cup.
That adds edge to Monday’s tie, particularly given the way Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea seems to have lost its way of late. Winning the FA Cup in and of itself is unlikely to keep Sarri in the job for next season–there are far greater forces that will make that decision, largely surrounding just how interested Roman Abramovich remains in the club–but defeat would add to the sense of a project collapsing. Victory over Malmo in the Europa League on Thursday has done little to lift the pressure or expunge the memory of last Sunday’s 6-0 humiliation at Manchester City.
Victory over United would not do that either, but it might at least encourage the belief that the scale of that defeat was an aberration, and that Sarri’s methods are beginning to take root. In that sense, Monday’s game is the perfect modern FA Cup tie: two sides out of the running for the bigger prizes, desperately seeking validation elsewhere.