Manchester United’s 2-0 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday night was made worse by injuries to both Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial. The duo, who have played a key role in the club’s revitalisation under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, are expected to miss between two and three weeks on the sidelines.
It has given Solskjær an unwanted problem ahead of upcoming games against Chelsea in the FA Cup and Liverpool in the Premier League. All had been going perfectly for the Norweigan, but he is now faced with a real test of his credentials.
Firstly, he must ensure that his players respond to the PSG defeat. That will have knocked their confidence, and it doesn’t get any easier over the next couple of weeks.
Solskjær must also find a solution to the problem created by the absence of both Lingard and Martial. The latter has been central to United’s attack in recent weeks, scoring in wins at Arsenal and Fulham and posing a constant threat in the counter-attack.
Only Paul Pogba has more goals than Martial’s ten in all competitions for United this season.
The same can be said of Lingard, whose verve and energy alongside Martial and Marcus Rashford has been integral to United’s reinvention under Solskjær. With two of that trio missing, a different approach will be required.
“It is a chance for anyone who plays, whether it is Alexis, Romelu or Angel (Gomes),” Solskjær told Sky Sports. “Anthony and Jesse have done really well for us, they are vital in the attacking parts with their pace.
“Romelu and Alexis have different skill sets and will be able to show what they can do, so we just need to gel a team together for Monday now.”
Solskjær has options, although it remains to be seen whether he will continue to place his trust in Alexis Sánchez. The Chilean was disappointing again against PSG, contributing little after his introduction as a second-half substitute.
“I can’t do anything about Alexis Sánchez,” said Solskjær. “When he plays he needs to find himself because there’s a quality player there.”
Sánchez, though clearly underperforming, has shown glimpses of his capabilities throughout the season. Even amid the criticism, he remains one of United’s most creative players: his xA per 90 is the best of any player in the team (0.31) and he has provided an average of 0.87 big chances per 90 minutes. The issue is that his contributions have been sporadic. He has too often been guilty of fading out of games.
Romelu Lukaku, too, has struggled for consistency this season. He has rarely started under Solskjær and his inclusion in the team would likely require a change of shape, given Rashford has led the line in recent weeks.
Lukaku remains a reliable goal scorer: he has found the net at a rate of 0.5 goals per 90 minutes so far this season and his xG per 90 of 0.52 is only bettered by Pogba’s 0.57.
Solskjær may feel, though, that it is time to introduce one of the youngsters showing promise. Mason Greenwood was expected to be involved against Chelsea on Monday night, but he is out injured. Angel Gomes and Tahith Chong, then, could be called upon instead.
“We still have forward options but Angel and Chongy have been training with us all week, even the weeks leading up to this, so there is a big chance they will be involved,” Solskjær said.
Regardless of who comes in, Martial’s absence, in particular, will be felt. The Frenchman’s ability to drive at the opposition, to occupy defenders, is difficult to replace.
“I am glad he is in my team,” Solskjær said of Martial only last week. “He has contributed to so many chances, so many goals. He is a Manchester United player. He excites the crowd. He excites the manager. He excites his team-mates. And he is a great character around the place.”
The hope will be that whoever comes into the team in place of Martial can match his level of performance. His injury – like Lingard’s – is not serious and he will soon be available for selection again. But United’s next two games are perhaps their biggest of the season so far.
This is a test, then, of United’s squad depth and Solskjær’s ability to deal with setbacks.