Manchester United’s recent upturn in form came to an end as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came down to earth with an all-too realistic bump. Bournemouth cantered to a comfortable win on the south coast in a game they hardly had to get out of second gear.
United started the better and looked as if though they would continue their recent good form. They pressed high and looked comfortable in their position as favourites.
But, slowly, that confidence seemed to drip away; Martial and Young were both guilty of lapses in concentration where the ball was surrendered too easily, United’s movement in forward positions (apart from the effervescent James) was poor and often easily telegraphed by the home defenders. Add to that the poor conditions, and what began as an encouraging display became one of concern as the home team took advantage of complacency.
Their goal before half-time was cleverly taken by King but embarrassing for Wan-Bissaka and Lindelof. It was avoidable; one hopes a lesson for the new signing, though the lack of authority to help him was quite concerning.
And so we were presented with a new task for United against an opponent who have been pretty poor in front of goal in recent weeks. Could they use the momentum of their positive recent form to find a way back into the game?
Well, the answer was not positive in the opening stages of the second period, as Bournemouth were the team in the ascendancy, creating the better openings. United offered little until Lingard came on for Pereira, a change which brought a coincidental shift in territorial possession for a few minutes. Meanwhile, Juan Mata — who can often be marginalised himself, but is surely the perfect player for tighter pitches like this — watched on.
Only when the plan was abandoned and the kitchen sink came on in the form of rookies Greenwood and Williams did United pose any real threat but then it was not enough, too late and too frantic against a team who already had a lead so didn’t need to do anything risky.
Greenwood hit a post and Williams offered a threat but the change was too little, too late. The below par showings of Rashford and Martial in particular after their showing in the last seven days was a hard reminder that faith is being put in their potential and not actual current stature. The Bournemouth defenders handled the task, such as it was, easily.
Once they had realised that endeavour was the key to stopping United’s heartbeat, the midfield of McTominay and Fred was also comfortably handled.
It was a bad day for Solskjaer too whose selection was wrong from the start. Young looked off the pace and the forward line was much too pedestrian to pose a real threat.
If United are not at their best, they are predictable enough to figure out with some comfort.
United are only ever one defeat away from a crisis so those old doubting voices will feel vindicated about criticising Solskjaer but there are probably enough of us who have been here so many times that lurching from a decent run of form to a performance like today is barely a shock.
There is little to be learned from this group of senior players and so we hope that Solskjaer himself does learn something; fortune favours the brave, and today United were scarcely that. If the necessary double change had come ten minutes earlier they might have forced enough panic to get a result.
United have something of a pressing issue with regards the fringe players. Fred, Pereira and Young have all done much better than expected in recent weeks but the issue is their contributions at maximum level are hardly likely to be sufficient to help United in their quest to improve and get into the top four.
There is little to be said about their long-term futures other than they are all most likely temporary selections and even if they do something exceptional it will still prove to be the case.
And, at worst, they always seem to be one error close to eroding their own confidence or costing United a result. Fred was okay today in the first half, but invention is required alongside effort for a player in Pereira’s role whilst Young is still a veteran winger providing a stop gap relief at full back, and so continues to perform with the understandable limitations which come with that.
Young is clearly a good professional and gets on with the job, and as the ‘nominal club captain’, Solskjaer has extended some extra loyalty, but after so many impressive Brandon Williams performances, perhaps this is finally the moment where the switch is made. (How often have we said that, though?)
Fred and Pereira are granted stays of execution only because of how poor United are in these areas but the need to upgrade remains apparent, and a matter of urgency.
One looks at the home game in Europe and the forthcoming tie against Colchester as opportunities for Garner and Gomes to come in and make a case for themselves.