Football. Where one week you can score a last minute winner and then see the opponent miss a penalty. And the next week it can happen to you.
That was the story in a nutshell for Manchester United but as far as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is concerned he now faces increased questioning and justifiably so after this abject and disjointed display to Aston Villa.
Villa snatched a last gasp winner through Hause, and then United went down the other end and were awarded – finally – their first penalty of the season. Bruno Fernandes fired it high into the Stretford end, to give United exactly what they deserved from this match.
Like the midweek match in the league cup, the hosts registered almost 30 shots on goal, and yet other than Mason Greenwood rarely looked threatening.
Villa were comfortable, energetic, and – most concerning of all – completely bossed the middle of the park. Solskjaer went with his pragmatic pair of McTominay and Fred but neither were at the races and, as a consequence, United were left to try the wings.
Unfortunately, Pogba had a day where he looked like a square peg in a round hole, whist on the other side, Aaron Wan-Bissaka had a dreadful game. Shaw, before his injury, had a couple of worrying moments where he was caught out of position. That’s happening a little too often.
There were poor performances all over the pitch, leaving Bruno Fernandes anonymous and Ronaldo serviceless. And even in Greenwood’s liveliness was a selfishness that sometimes frustrated.
So, what did United’s efforts on goal amount to? A chance from a corner, a couple of those Greenwood shots, and less than a handful of set pieces which told us Fernandes, as taker, had first choice. As popular as he is, there was a feeling in the stands that Ronaldo should have been given the kicks. Not that we should use that to blame Fernandes. It was one of those days for a player who has often pulled United out of the mud.
But it’s already now too many ‘of those days’ for Solskjaer to continue to do the same thing and expect for United to challenge. The midfield pair works in games where United are expected to break down the play but it never has in matches like these.
If it is baffling enough that Fred has kept his place for such matches with Van De Beek available, it’s even more strange that Sancho was not brought on when United needed delivery from wide. Yes, the last substitution was forced by the earlier two in a sense, but the problem was getting the ball into Ronaldo, not getting Ronaldo wide.
It’s a conundrum that will only become more troublesome with Rashford’s impending return. But the argument about having the right balance in home games like this is hollow considering the chasm in the middle of the park.
Villa, for their part, came to frustrate. But they also had ambition, and United always looked vulnerable. Their goal was deserved and looked like just reward for a magnificently executed game plan.
Solskjaer now faces some introspection. One man’s loyalty is another man’s negligence – and failure to address obvious errors, even accounting for his tendency to be overly patient, is going to feed the increasing suspicion that he has reached his own ceiling.
It was no mean feat to come in and repair much of the mess he inherited, and United to be clear are still in their healthiest position post-Ferguson (and there’s still the caveat about where that Ronaldo money came from and if it was typical owner negligence to not sign a midfielder instead/as well), but if Ole is to make an unqualified success of his time at United, the time for ruthlessness with the key area of the side has definitely arrived.
The team picked itself after the win over West Ham.
But should it? Are two holding players in midfield necessary at home? Are they even necessary at all now United have Varane? Isn’t this the perfect chance to give a player like Van De Beek a game? Wasn’t this the sort of game Sancho was bought to help turn? Is it right to expect this influence to come from the bench? It’s nice to have options. But United have options anyway now, and the point is to be more proactive than they were today.
Solskjaer now has an embarrassment of riches and it’s fair to ask questions if he’s not getting the best out of them – it’s one thing for the players to not be good enough. But this group of players should be better than the performances they’ve put in since Newcastle.
Yes, the midfield is poor. But it could be better than it is with the players that are available. The manager can’t afford many performances or results like this with so much on the line now.
De Gea 7