There were no end of positives for Manchester United to take from the win in Paris in midweek, but perhaps one of the most pleasing was how assured they look defensively against one of Europe’s most exciting attacks.
United have been poor defensively this season, shipping 11 goals in their first three Premier League games of the season, and Anthony Martial’s own goal in the 3-1 win at the Parc des Princes means they still haven’t kept a clean sheet in the league or the Champions League this season.
But a makeshift backline that included a debut for Alex Telles and a first start for 10 months for Axel Tuanzebe coped superbly with Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Angel Di Maria.
Some of those performances might have given Solskjaer a new first-choice defence when he has everyone fit and available, which he will hope to be the case against Chelsea tomorrow, the fitness of Harry Maguire permitting.
United used a back three in Paris but they generally go with a back four and they’ve had issues in finding a suitable partner for Maguire, the form of the captain himself, and in getting more attacking threat from their full-backs.
At right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s spot is under no pressure and his performances have improved this season. He’s also added more attacking impetus to his game by the week, with his first goal for the club, at Newcastle, a deserved milestone on his 50th appearance for the club.
Maguire’s place is also secure as well. The £80million centre back has been well below his best this season but Solskjaer’s decision to pick him at Newcastle was a major show of faith in the club captain.
The biggest problem has been a partner for Maguire. Not only have Victor Lindelof – excellent in Paris, it should be said – and Eric Bailly failed to convince, but their hesitancy hasn’t spread nervousness throughout the defence, including to Maguire.
But after Tuanzebe’s sensational display in the Champions League the academy graduate deserves the chance to make that spot his own. The 22-year-old was in line for a more prominent role in the squad last season, after a successful loan spell at Aston Villa, but injuries wrecked that opportunity and his road back to full fitness has been a long one.
The way he played against Mbappe in particular on Tuesday night showed the strengths in his game. His one-v-one defending is excellent and he is quick as well. They are two traits that are essential in United’s defence, given they can be caught on the break and that Maguire isn’t the fastest. Tuanzebe could yet emerge as the ideal foil for the England centre back.
That just leaves left-back. Luke Shaw proved again in midweek that he can play a left-sided centre-back role in a three-man defence superbly, but it’s clear £15.4million new boy Alex Telles is the better all-round left-back. The Brazilian played at wing-back in Paris but can play full-back and his crossing could be a major weapon for United, who don’t get much attacking threat down the left from Shaw.
Telles also brings more pace to the defence and the speed of Wan-Bissaka, Tuanzebe and Telles would more than make up for Maguire’s occasional sluggishness.
Solskjaer has struggled to land on a consistent defence this season, but in goal David de Gea is enjoying a much more assured season. If United can find a settled back four in front of him it will make a significant difference to their chances of success this term.