The Secret Coach: United Triumph in Paris Again
Last night, Manchester United travelled to the scene of one of their most famous recent triumphs in Europe, Paris. Having beaten Paris St. Germain on away goals to knock them out of the Champions League two seasons ago, it was poetic justice that United’s first game back in the competition since a year of exile would be against Thomas Tuchel’s side.
We enjoyed the game in the company of The Secret Coach. Last time we spoke to The Secret Coach, they were critical of Gareth Southgate’s England as they lost 1-0 to Denmark. This week, covering the Champions League was a different ball game all together. The Secret Coach knows plenty about the game at all levels, being a professional football coach in English football. Throughout our series of article, TSC will remain anonymous. They’ve worked with some of the biggest names in the game, going through the coaching process, and is currently part of the team at an English league side… and that’s all we’re telling you. They’ll be honest each week about what they see as they see it.
As ever this week, The Secret Coach pulls no punches!
Solskjaer’s United were a very different team who faced PSG at the Parc Des Princes last night to the one who won courtesy of two goals by Romelu Lukaku and a last-minute penalty by Marcus Rashford 18 months earlier. This time, with crucial players from that night such as Lukaku and Chris Smalling both having been sold to Italian Serie A team Inter Milan and Roma respectively, could Solskjaer’s side make up for key losses in their ranks such as Harry Maguire and Mason Greenwood?
“Even the most established managers will never take things for granted.”
The first question we posed to TSC was whether United would approach this game any differently coming up against an opponent they know so well.
“With a team you know well, it’s very difficult to plan for. You don’t want complacency to creep in with your planning.” Says the Secret Coach. “Just because you know a team well, meticulous planning must be done and the big teams have a good network of analysts that will pick apart game after game and provide the manager with a huge in-depth dossier of data and videos to help them and their team to plan.”
Despite this wealth of information at Solskjaer’s fingertips, TSC insists nothing is ever taken for granted.
“Even the most established managers will never take things for granted and if they do, they can come undone. The risk of prior knowledge assumption is dangerous and ignoring the analyst’s data could prove naive. After all, analysts are paid to do a job, you wouldn’t go to the doctors and after your diagnosis say, ‘Thanks but I’ve felt like this before and I was OK!’. All teams evolve and make tweaks to their teams, so there are always things to look at from tactics and formations to new players and set piece routines.”
“It’s the psychological aspect that could make or break the meticulous game plan.”
While PSG lost the tie against United the season before last, in the 2019/20 season they very nearly won the entire shooting match, only losing to Bayern Munich in the final. Having come so close, playing an old foe as the first game in this season’s European campaign could have an effect says TSC, as the players warm up.
“Add in the emotion of revenge and both managers will be assessing each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Look at Liverpool’s high line in their defeat against Aston Villa, where the away side squeezed the space further up the pitch… but have teams worked that out? These are fine details as it’s only a matter of a yard, but they can make all the difference.”
“We will certainly see who wants and loves that Red Devils badge.”
What about United’s victory in their last game at the Parc Des Princes – does that have a positive or negative effect?
“A negative, potentially. If it happens regularly, the team who wins between the two could begin to think ‘It’s going to be easy because we haven’t lost there for ages.’, especially if they didn’t play well. Likewise, if they lost but played well each time, it could play on their minds. It’s the psychological aspect that could make or break the meticulous game plan.”
From that POV, Tuchel’s tactics are crucial. How do United stop Di Maria, Neymar and Mbappe with their patched-up defence?
“It’s crucial [to stop them], but because world class players such as these can win a game single-handedly, PSG players may get complacent without realizing it as they expect that from their star players. Tuchel, whilst lucky to have those players at his disposal, needs to ensure that his game plan is fulfilled by all of his players. United have a tough ask, but it’s easier to raise your game knowing others expect your opponent will succeed to prove the doubters wrong. We will certainly see who wants and loves that Red Devils badge and is willing to put their body on the line for it.”
United’s team is out, and the set-up looks to rely on counter-attacking football with the split strikers Martial and Rashford up top. It’s worked before to devastating effect, but effort is key, as is a defence containing Luke Shaw, Victor Lindelof and Axel Tuanzebe who hasn’t played since a domestic cup match against Colchester 10 months earlier.
“It all depends how high the intensity PSG play at. Players will work hard to the game plan to prevent attacking team opportunities and make them work hard to get any success but at what cost physically? Yes, counter attacking is effective but if you work hard to retain the ball then counter at pace, if you score its great but if not then it’s a hard shift back into shape to go again.
I’ve been involved and watched so many games when teams are out on their feet in touch of a win or a deserved point when fatigue sets in. Decision-making drops and a mistake happens and the quality of the opposition punishes them. You can man-mark someone for 92 mins, you’ve got the Man of the Match award in the bag then tiredness kicks in and a split second later, you’re slow to react to your man and he scores. It’s very tough, both physically and mentally.”
“You saw which way the player went, so the mind games start.”
United start well, with David De Gea making a couple of saves but the Red Devils counter-attack effectively and when Anthony Martial is hauled down, United have a spot-kick. Bruno Fernandes’ first effort is saved, but PSG ‘keeper Keylor Navas was encroaching and the penalty is re-taken. Fernandes, United’s captain, goes the same way and slots it home, United are 1-0 up.
“A missed penalty for the goalkeeping encroaching is really interesting,” says The Secret Coach. “You saw which way the player went, so the mind games start. Does the player think the goalkeeper is expecting him to put it in the same place so they should go the other way? A one-off is anyone’s, but a re-take gets really interesting.”
“It’s hard to explain, but on the touch line and in the moment, you know.”
United have the advantage and not just in terms of the goal. They can now play counter-attacking football, and as the game reaches half-time, what should PSG do to change?
“If you’re the manager in that moment, sometimes you have a gut feeling how it is going to go. It can be a feeling of confidence and belief in your team to stick to your game plan that you’ve worked on, but it can also be a feeling – and I’ve felt it – that something isn’t right be it the personnel of the team, tempo or even the whole game plan! Especially if you have deviated from your normal way of playing to counteract the opponent’s strength that you need to change. It’s hard to explain but on the touch line and in the moment, you know.”
The Secret Coach might know, but we don’t! Into the second half and United have chances to seal the game at 2-0. Instead, a corner is deflected into his own net by homecoming Frenchman Anthony Martial and it’s 1-1 in Paris’s national stadium. What’s the biggest part of a coach’s job at that moment – tactics, or keeping a group of players together on the pitch when something like that happens?
“In this instance, it’s the players.” Says the Secret Coach. “You’ve got to keep them motivated and believing. An own goal is a killer, but as I’ve said before, constant pressure can wear players down. It’s important that Ole [Solskjaer] makes sure they don’t feel sorry for themselves and maybe puts on fresh legs to up the tempo. This is where United will look to their leaders. Who now will stand up and be counted to either maintain the point or drive them on for all three?”
“On his day, Pogba is a match winner, but on another day, you’re playing with a man less.”
As it happens, The Secret Coach is prescient yet again, as United put on Paul Pogba, a man who divides opinion among football supporters. Perhaps lacking the visible work-rate other players such as Scott McTominay and Fred have in spades, it’s a risk, but TSC believes the Frenchman can make the difference.
“On his day, Pogba is a match winner, but on another day, you’re playing with a man less. He needs to show his ability consistently.”
One player TSC has been impressed with is Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who recently identified as Congolese rather than English for International representation.
“He has been good; Wan-Bissaka excels in one-v-one situations but he is not as creative as others going forward, meaning he is behind others in the pecking order for England, but arguably is potentially the best defensive right back England could have had.”
“Are young, hungry players better in some circumstances than established regulars?”
With time ticking away, it looks like United will have to settle for a draw after making much of the play after Pogba’s introduction. There is a fairytale ending, however, as Marcus Rashford takes Pogba’s pass, darts towards the edge of the box and slams home an unstoppable drive in off the post as you can see here (video only available in the United Kingdom).
After such an impressive performance, could United’s heroes on the night, such as Axel Tuanzebe, who defended brilliantly against the panache and craft of Kylian Mbappe and Neymar establish themselves in the team for good? After, Marcus Rashford was that player just a few years ago when he broke through in the Europa League against FC Midtjylland.
“That is a great question. For me, as a manager, it’s fantastic when player is out or rested that the ones who come in step up and give the manager a headache. Are young, hungry players better in some circumstances than established regulars? It will be interesting to see if [Ole Gunnar Solskjaer] sticks with any of them when others are available.”
After the game, the not-so-secret coach of Manchester United, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer spoke to United’s own YouTube channel to talk through the game:
Next week, we’ll be speaking to TSC about another Premier League clash as the best league in the world reaches six games into the season. The Secret Coach will return