Reaction as United come from behind, and then capitulate, in a topsy turvy game at Bramall Lane.
On a weekend where speculation around the future of managers is reaching its peak for the current season, it’s difficult to know what to make of an afternoon where Ole Gunnar Solskjaer emerges with credit and yet ultimately will field criticism, deservedly so, following a performance that was largely insipid in Sheffield.
For seventy minutes his team were dreadful and the most damning thing to say was that this was not even the worst performance we’ve seen from them this campaign.
Through various previous lows, fingers can and have been pointed at poor performances of players and a poor attitude.
You could perhaps say the same here but with most of the usual culprits missing, there was an unavoidable and telling truth — some of these Manchester United players are just not good enough, and getting a drubbing from Sheffield United is probably a level we ought to expect.
But within that, Solskjaer does deserve the lion’s share of the blame. Take for example the performance of Phil Jones, who one could fairly contend should have not been starting anyway considering Axel Tuanzebe was available. But he did play, and he did play on the left hand side of a central defence of three, a role tailor made for Harry Maguire. Jones makes mistakes in his best position; place him in unfamiliar terrain and the result is likely to be the sort of showing we saw in the first 45 minutes. This is not news, and it wasn’t news under Louis van Gaal, or Jose Mourinho.
So, every time Jones does play, and every time he makes a mistake, this has to be down to the manager who should know by now that it is time to move him on. But couple that with putting him in an unfamiliar role, particularly when you have better suited players for that role available? That is a very negative reflection of Solskjaer’s approach to this game.
Some might say the selection of Fred and Pereira was representative of this, too. Both were poor, with Pereira unfortunately putting in one of his more disappointing showings. Solskjaer just about gets a pass here because of the injury crisis in that area of the team. One could understand the logic of overloading the defence to compensate for the problems in midfield; but when you overload the defence with Phil Jones on the left hand side, you are not compensating, you are merely presenting more problems.
This would be difficult enough for a team with strength elsewhere in the team but United possess too few characters who are up for the sort of fight that is required. Anthony Martial once more strolled his way through a match where United needed someone with more spirit. Fair enough, he’s not that sort of player, you might say. But United simply cannot afford to carry players, and Martial has not shown the sort of quality on an even remotely consistent basis that suggests he’s worth carrying or that he’s worth his place in the team in spite of his shortcomings. And United’s fight back today was truly in spite, and not because, of Martial’s peripheral contribution.
So what did inspire the fightback? It’s probably fairly simple; removing the biggest issues, and going for broke, which was probably the approach Solskjaer ought to have taken from the off. It was probably James’ worst performance for the club and Rashford was not brilliant but both came up with moments of quality when United needed it.
That positivity, with an emphasis on strengths rather than weaknesses, caused a moment of panic within the otherwise comfortable hosts. And, once they noted there had been a mentality shift presented to them through the Tuanzebe substitution, they felt bold enough to attack. Sheffield United deserved their point and Solskjaer is fortunate that he has any sort of reward from a game where neither he or his team deserved anything.
As mentioned close to the top, the sacking of Mauricio Pochettino will naturally invite further pressure on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and if the score had remained at 2-0 one would have imagined that the headlines tomorrow would have perhaps suggested the Norwegian would be placed alongside the incumbent Arsenal and Everton managers in the ‘at risk’ category.
The plausibility of Pochettino’s capability to fix the sort of problems at United when he couldn’t fix similar ones at Spurs remains open to question but that isn’t the point; the point is Solskjaer inviting the pressure when it could be avoided, and the trigger issue for that point to be raised is whether the manager is getting the best out of what he has got. Today you could comfortably argue that he did not.
Football is becoming a short-term, reactionary sport and United are led from the top by a man who is prone to being influenced by the climate and flavours of the month.
Solskjaer, however, did himself no favours, and if his team had lost, he would have been taking this one firmly on his own shoulders. Worse still, in his post-match interview, he claimed he could not ‘put a finger on’ why they had been so poor for more than an hour. It will not take Mauricio Pochettino to work that one out.
Whilst giving criticism let us give praise. Solskjaer did send on Mason Greenwood and did start Brandon Williams, and he did address the errors by bringing off Jones and Pereira. United were galvanised by just going for it, and by trusting in their better performers from recent weeks.
Football can be most thrilling at its simplest, and, considering that has been the foundation for the better moments of United’s season so far, perhaps Solskjaer might consider this a lesson in sticking with what works instead of giving into the temptation to break something that was looking like it might work, by going back to players that didn’t work out in the first place.
So United are denied all three points in the end by a controversial goal which had to be referred for a VAR check (yes, I know all goals are subject to check). Was it handball? Well, you’ve seen them given, you’ve seen them disallowed.
In normal circumstances it would be a case of c’est la vie, and you certainly would not begrudge the Blades a share of the spoils from a game where they were the better team for more than seventy minutes, but under the microscopic lens and the harsh letter of the law, the ball did indeed appear to strike the upper part of McBurnie’s arm before he scored.
There’s no transparency, there’s no consistency, so what’s the point?