Manchester United slumped to an embarrassing defeat at the hands of lowly Sheffield United; a devastating blow to their hopes of an unlikely challenge, but a reality check on an eye-opening night at Old Trafford.
There was a distinct lack of the urgency that was seen on Sunday, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had expressed his concern about in the build up. To some extent that was natural, but there are levels to what should be expected and United fell well below that, particularly in the first half.
Rashford had an effort wide in the 11th minute but the Blades were not in Manchester to sit back and defend; a clever ball behind the defence found Sharp, but his effort was saved by De Gea.
In the 23rd minute, the visitors got a corner – Sharp contested for the ball with De Gea, and looked to impede him, though not strongly enough for it to be a foul – Bryan took advantage and headed in off the post.
Seven minutes later, the roulette of football threw up a similar scenario at the other end, when Ramsdale flapped at a cross as Maguire challenged for it. The ball dropped to Martial, but the whistle was blown as he connected with the ball and put it in the net.
It was certainly a case that both or neither should have stood; maybe it will have an impact on one of those fantasy tables nobody gives a damn about.
There was a legitimate grumble for that but a bigger headache for the United manager would have been the hugely below par performance of his team. Too many passes from the back were rushed and thrown away; too many passes from midfield were fed into channels that didn’t help the forwards; too often, passes between team-mates went awry, with nobody seeming as if they were on the same wavelength as a colleague.
Solskjaer has been in this position many times this season – only Leeds were defeated with any emphasis, despite United’s position in the league, and many times United have had to come from behind.
But another indication this wasn’t going to be their night came three minutes into the second half; Fernandes played Greenwood through, and the youngster, who has been so deadly from that position in the past, screwed his shot wide.
Solskjaer’s men were still flat; Rashford had a free-kick from distance straight at the goalkeeper just after the hour, and a couple of minutes later Fernandes then had one deflected by the wall and away. It was from the resultant corner that the breakthrough finally came; Telles’ set-piece was met by a thumping Maguire header which flew into the net. Cavani was promptly brought on for Greenwood.
In the 74th minute, Sheffield United attacked in the home box with the clever movement the hosts had not managed all night; Oliver Burke had a free hit, and his shot deflected in off the cross bar via Tuanzebe’s knee. The defenders were like statues in the box.
With eight minutes to go, Shaw and Van De Beek were thrown on for Telles and Tuanzebe – but though the urgency was clearly there, the quality clearly wasn’t. Passes were continually short. Runs were consistently poor. Solskjaer had worried it was coming but even his worst nightmare wouldn’t have featured a performance this poor.
It was a remarkable scoreline to come right before a crunch run of fixtures where the genuine championship contenders will play against each other. Points will be dropped from those teams, which will heighten the misapprehension that United are ‘still’ in the race.
But the reminder of the home side’s capacity to be impacted by their weaknesses no matter of the opponent in a weak league is a sobering one – the right-sided centre-half who can play the ball with comfort, the deep midfielder to do the dirty work that allows Pogba to be further upfield and take some of the burden from Fernandes, and Martial’s tendency to go missing against any defence on any given day, all of these are significant issues that not only undermine realistic talk of challenging for the league, they’re all issues which could still prove the difference between qualifying for the Champions League or not.
As it stands, United look as though they’ll be navigating the rest of this season without addressing any of those issues, with Solskjaer not only suffering the misfortune of not being backed in the summer, but now seemingly being punished for the overachievement in the campaign so far by not having any transfers in January.
It was a reality check at the worst possible time – back to earth with a bump for the Reds who were on cloud nine three days ago.
In terms of this month’s projected objectives it was a terrible blow; in terms of what should be expected this season, it’s a definite setback, but shouldn’t be terminal so long as the response is as strong as it was to the last one.
In came Telles, Matic, Tuanzebe and Martial – and the changes did not really work for Solskjaer, with Martial, Rashford and Matic in particular looking poor in the first half, causing a severe handicap on the pace, vibrancy and unpredictability of United’s build up.
It did not look to be a cohesive team but it should still have been strong enough to defeat one of the worst performing teams in Premier League history. It wasn’t, and the Blades deserved their win, even accounting for the controversy of the first half decisions.
So it has to be said Solskjaer deserves to take the criticism for perhaps taking the game too lightly in his selection if not in his pre-match missive; he deserves the criticism for not reacting much sooner to how badly this game was going, because it was clear at half-time that a significant change was needed. United plodded on and Cavani was thrown into the abyss of a centre-forward role with two wide forwards not renowned for their crossing and one attacking midfielder who was never able to get on the ball in positions where he could damage the opponent.
You could, and should, credit Sheffield United for their own game plan – and by the same narrow margins that see Ole’s team where they are in the table, Chris Wilder can complain that his team have been unlucky and are not quite as dreadful as, say, Derby of 2008.
But United should still have done better, they should still have done enough to win, and they were so far off it that it was a definite reminder that the players and the manager still have a way to go.
Now Solskjaer will be forced to go through the rest of the season with this squad, knowing they are capable of the highs of Sunday and the lows of tonight at the flick of a switch.
De Gea 5