Reaction as Manchester United slumped to defeat in their third Premier League game of the season.
Looking at the bare statistics of the game, United deserved something from their encounter with Crystal Palace, but the truth is supporters have seen this much too often for it to be dismissed as unlucky.
Over 70% of the ball and more than twenty attempts on goal suggests the issue is to do with quality, which is a worrying conclusion to make over what is ostensibly the most promising part of United’s squad.
United played Rashford, Martial, James, Lingard and, for a prolonged period in the second half, Greenwood, all of the players they will be counting on for the majority of this season, at least until January. It can be reasonably argued that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team did enough to fashion a positive result but the end result is they didn’t, and the purpose of reactions like this is to consider why.
There isn’t enough consistency in the front line and the secondary concern is that there isn’t enough quality. United have invested heavily in new contracts for Rashford and Martial and it remains to be seen whether either of them are capable of delivering consistently.
The performance exposed many of the problems United currently struggle with. David De Gea was beaten too easily at his near post. Luke Shaw’s injury and replacement by Ashley Young said all you need to know about how the transfer window was underwhelming. There are further specific instances which I will touch on in a moment but it was another game where Pogba was hit and miss — he now at least appears to have concentrated those levels of inconsistency into ninety minute portions, where one outrageously positive moment can come from an otherwise distinctly poor overall performance.
It is a matter of grave concern that this team only seem capable of playing well in short periods against teams who want to attack, and only if the opponent has their own vulnerability. No team will make an apology for doing what Palace did because they know they do not have to work too hard to get a result, and teams above mid-table know they can afford to let United have a go because generally they can hurt them back just as much. It was also a sign of Ole’s naivety that he set up a team which had qualities of a counter-attacking side against an opponent who were going to play that manner themselves. It exposed the attacking players for not having the craft or guile to better a supposedly lesser opponent.
It is hard to draw any positives from an afternoon like that but at least Solskjaer went with a plan to win the game and approached it as such. He has seemingly made it a matter of importance that he will address players wanting to play for the shirt and on yesterday’s evidence that is still a work in progress. And that’s trying to be positive, because if that isn’t the issue, it’s even more worrying.
A little warning was given on our podcast in recent weeks with the study of how Lindelof and Maguire would partner each other. Lindelof has shifted position to the right while Maguire defends a little deeper. Palace exposed that clinically yesterday with the move that resulted in their first goal.
Looking at this in an optimistic light, this is a teething problem, though you might also say it could have been avoided had Maguire been signed in the first weeks of pre-season rather than the last days of it, so the defenders could get used to playing alongside each other. Again, if that isn’t the issue, and it’s a sign of a deeper problem, then that is more concerning.
The Januzaj effect
This isn’t a reflection of the quality of Mason Greenwood, who looks to have more talent than Adnan Januzaj had, but more a summary of United’s issues in the last five years.
The fantastic young players who broke through in years gone by came in to a squad with the right attitude but since David Moyes was manager, the structure has not quite been the same. The appealing prospects have been given chances but in times of desperation where inappropriate pressure has been pushed on to their shoulders.
Januzaj was given the chance after failure to sign an attacking player in that role (the spectacular failure to sign Bale, for example). He was exposed to too much first team football and didn’t make that step up.
You might even make the same argument for Marcus Rashford, but United are stuck playing him as the leading player, and there is no guarantee of him developing into the player worthy of leading the line for the club; there is hope, but he is still a work in progress.
And now with Rashford and James and Lingard pushed as starting players who don’t have the experience of actually leading United at the highest level. They should be the players coming in to make the difference for more experienced players, but such is life, and such has been the terrible transfer strategy that those experienced players have been Lukaku and Sanchez. Neither of those players were good enough.
The mean position for these players is sixth; it is worrying that Greenwood will be next in to try and elevate prospects and hopes. He does have the potential but runs the risk of becoming burdened with it.
No excuse for the game because United lost and had the embarrassing subplot of the penalty farce continuing but you do have to look at the suspect refereeing and wonder what part VAR is meant to play. Gary Cahill should have been sent off and Anthony Martial was felled by Kelly for an earlier penalty, or what should have been.
VAR was meant to be the best solution and might work out the numerous kinks but at the moment it seems to be the very worst of all possible scenarios, with confusion over interpretation with rules needing to be explained, errors still being made and many debatable decisions still not fully being explained. Is it worth the disruption?