A famous victory for Young Boys, who snatched this game with virtually the last kick, and deservedly so. In the fifth minute of injury time, the substitute Jordan Siebatcheu picked up the ball from Jesse Lingard’s inexplicable error, held his nerve and tucked the ball past David de Gea to ignite wild celebrations in this grand Swiss stadium. For Manchester United, depleted and distracted, this was a reminder that for all the shiny new talent on display, some familiar old failings remain.
And people thought the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo would make things more simple. In the end it was anything but, as Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s 10-man United lost their way against theoretically the weakest side in their group. After an early goal from Who Else?, you would have got pretty long odds on United playing out a good portion of the second half with a mystified Lingard as their lone striker. But the red card given to Aaron Wan-Bissaka towards the end of the first half changed the game, leading Solskjær down a puzzling road of substitutions and tactical shifts that often looked as though they were confounding his own players.
The artificial surface at the Wankdorf was slippery underfoot and Young Boys proved slippery opposition. Ronaldo’s early goal ought to have settled United, but even before the red card David Wagner’s impressive young side were enjoying plenty of counter-play, feasting on the spaces behind what was effectively a United front five, with the lesser-spotted Donny van de Beek alongside Fred in midfield. In a sense Solskjær had taken a calculated gamble here, sacrificing a little midfield cover in the confidence that their sheer weight of attacking talent would eventually overwhelm.
What of Ronaldo? Well, he did barely a thing of note until scoring in the 13th minute, and very little after it either, which you might say is pretty much the point of him these days. But the goal itself was a gem: cheekily created by Bruno Fernandes with the outside of his boot, Ronaldo timing his acceleration to perfection and meeting the ball with just enough force to squeeze it between the legs of David von Ballmoos and over the line.
It was Ronaldo’s fifth goal in barely 100 minutes of football for club and country, but given his reluctance to close down defenders (although he did drop deep to receive the ball) United were never quite able to control the game as they might have liked. Good chances fell to Christian Fassnacht and Michel Aebischer after being allowed to run at the United defence, and as half-time approached a certain equilibrium had emerged between United’s possession and Young Boys’ occasional incisions.
That persisted until the 35th minute, when Wan-Bissaka lost the ball with a poor touch and lunged a little too enthusiastically at the loose ball in response. No sooner had his studs indented Christopher Martins’s ankle than the French referee François Letexier was readying the red card, and despite the protests of a distraught Wan-Bissaka – who took more than a minute to leave the pitch – United had little reason for complaint.
Solskjær responded by hooking Jadon Sancho for Diogo Dalot. Fernandes went right and Paul Pogba left in a rough 4-4-1, and so began the third phase of the game, in which Young Boys tried to break down the rigid lines of blue shirts in front of them. Before the red card, United had enjoyed 66-34 possession. Thereafter, Young Boys dominated 72-28, and with a little more quality and poise in the final third might have sealed victory earlier.
There are games when United can look fairly comfortable soaking up pressure and hitting on the break. This was not one of those. Early in the second half Ronaldo threw himself to the ground, threw himself to the ground again when he realised he would not be getting a penalty, and thereafter played in a sort of prize funk, the sort that either ends in a spectacular 30-yard bicycle kick or a series of ever more elaborate dives.
Switching to a 5-3-1 in an attempt to get his team further up the pitch, Raphaël Varane came on in place of Van de Beek, who had another of those airy, metaphysical sort of games where he was definitely there but you couldn’t quite recall a single thing he did. But it was Varane who was beaten at the near post for the Young Boys equaliser, Moumi Ngamaleu sneaking ahead of him to bundle in the cross from Meschack Elia.
A dissatisfied Solskjær decided to mix things up. Off came Ronaldo, who had basically been faffing about since about the 50th minute. Off came the waning Fernandes, with Lingard and Nemanja Matic replacing them in an attempt to replace guile with industry. With three minutes left De Gea made a great save from Sandro Lauper’s long-range shot, and for all their guts and gumption the home side looked to have blown themselves out. But then came the unwise backpass from Lingard, the finish from Siebatcheu, and for United a night of indignities and humiliations had its final twist.