Man Utd v PSG the perfect test for both Mbappé & Solskjaer’s weird defence

In Depth

Kylian Mbappé looks set to face Manchester United as PSG’s only superstar forward. Throw United’s weird back line into the mix, and it’s a win-win for the neutral.

Psychology is everything in football. Make a decent player feel like a superstar and he will invariably play like one; shove him into the reserves, tell him he’s scum for seeing his newborn, and his abilities will quickly desert him.

For sure, some players will react to criticism better than others. But if any evidence was needed for the power of self-belief, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his reborn Manchester United side have recently provided it. Theirs is a team brimming with confidence fostered by positivity.

With that in mind, one can’t help but feel that Phil Jones’ hilarious new contract — four more years and a pay rise — was written up with one thing in mind: to make the defender feel capable of playing against Paris Saint-Germain, and specifically against Kylian Mbappé.

Frankly, it’s a sublime and maverick piece of man-management. Jones may not start against the French giants, but after making the XI in seven of Solskjaer’s nine Premier League matches to date, it’s a real possibility.

If the Preston-born clogger must come face to gurning face with the most talented young player in the world, why not stroke his ego first?

Carnage or miracle?

In truth, Mbappé at Old Trafford could be an intriguing battle for many reasons.

For one, there’s the distinct possibility that he could run riot over any combination of Jones, Chris Smalling, Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly. Confidence can take you far, but by such a distance do Mbappé’s attacking abilities exceed United’s defensive ones, even a confident Jones could be torn to pieces at Old Trafford.

Lindelof has put in some good performances lately, but none of United’s defensive options seems technically equipped for the task. Across two legs it could be a humiliation.

And yet the Champions League tie also presents a fascinating test for the power of sheer self-belief. Not just in terms of Solskjaer’s man-management, but in the abstract, too.

If United’s shonky defence can use its soaring morale to keep out the reigning French Player of the Year, it will be a huge testament to the powers of mental strength — or delusion, perhaps — in its most general sense.

Seeing Mbappé destroy Phil Jones is a mouth-watering prospect, but so is the less likely alternative: should this ragtag bunch of technically limited players keep the Frenchman at bay, we will witness ‘mind over matter’ at its limits.

Spotlight on Mbappé

Of course, one player who probably doesn’t need his ego massaging is Mbappé himself. The forward is scoring goals at an alarming rate and already has two hat-tricks this season.

In October he scored four goals in 13 minutes against Lyon… after PSG had a man sent off.

With Neymar out of the tie and Edinson Cavani doubtful, Mbappé knows PSG are depending on him. Crucially, however, he will know he is more than good enough.

But despite having little to prove in terms of his ability, Mbappé playing in a big match without Neymar or Cavani by his side is still an intriguing prospect.

The youngster, even prior to joining PSG, has usually played in conjunction with a goalscoring partner — be that Radamel Falcao at Monaco or Antoine Griezmann for the French national team.

At United, he will be going solo. Angel Di Maria will provide expert service, but it is Mbappé, now the team’s lone musketeer, on whom goalscoring responsibilities will be squarely placed.

Because of that, this feels like the 20-year-old’s chance to show how PSG can thrive even without their other two superstars, who, at 27 and 31, won’t be around forever.

Win-Win

In short, United vs PSG is a win-win for the neutral because it presents so many fascinating unknowns.

Just how badly could Kylian Mbappé hurt the likes of Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Ashley Young? After all, this is a defence that struggled against Southampton’s Stuart Armstrong and Michael Obafemi just two months ago. Solskjaer might have boosted the players’ confidence, but surely not by that much. Or has he?

Furthermore, if the Frenchman does inflict maximum damage without the help of his peers, by how much will his reputation rise? And what could that mean for the future of the PSG squad? If Mbappé leads PSG to Champions League success while Neymar sits out injured, would the Brazilian’s importance come ever so slightly into question?

On the other hand, what psychological marvel it would be if United’s defence comes through this (relatively) unscathed. And what a kick in the teeth that would be for José Mourinho and his general disregard for happiness.

Would a clean sheet vindicate giving Phil Jones a four-year contract? Possibly not, but it would come very, very close.

By Benedict O’Neill


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