Manchester United suffered another Old Trafford nightmare, this time at the hands of Manchester City, to inflict even more torture on the under-fire Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
And while the Norwegian bears the brunt of the criticism, United supporters will once again be despondent by the insipid showing of a bunch of players wearing a crest without a basic understanding of the implicit work ethic demanded by it – a meek surrender to Pep Guardiola’s side which in boxing parlance would include the phrase ‘didn’t even lay a glove on him’.
The truth is when things are so critically poor there is only one answer, and United’s parasitic owners – who have never had a track record for strong timing or judgement – now have a spotlight on them to see if they have changed their ways.
Coming just a matter of weeks after they cashed in shares to the tune of over £100m and put none of that money back into the club, you already have your answer on that score, and so if you’re a Manchester United supporter who has been significantly upset by the events of the last few weeks, chances are you’re only likely to suffer further hardship in the coming days, weeks and months.
Football is not played in the boardroom, it’s played on the pitch; some managers like to play ‘shadow football’ in training, where their players play against no opposition, and it could scarcely have been any more comfortable for City if they had done that.
City had (just) more than two thirds of the ball, which is par for the course with their style, but the ease in which they were able to keep the ball and the space they had to do as they wished with it would surely have been a source of stung pride for any player who feels they deserve to play for United.
It was a humiliating procession, the likes of which United fans were subjected to just a fortnight ago against Liverpool – and this time the visitors hadn’t even needed to establish a 5-0 chastening to provoke such a timid reaction.
Two was enough, earned through Eric Bailly’s trademark moment of ludicrous defending when he diverted an early cross into his own net, and some half-time horror defending by Luke Shaw which allowed Bernardo Silva to wrap the result up with a full half of football to play.
United’s response was dreadful – they had nothing other than a Ronaldo volley in the first half to even show they were up for a fight. David De Gea, again, had to be at his best to stop this scoreline being at least double, which would not have flattered the visiting champions.
Solskjaer had started with the 3-4-1-2 shape but the problem with that comes with the concession that United don’t have safety in numbers when it comes to playing Lindelof, Bailly and Maguire – you just increase the likelihood of basic errors, and United were paying for that mistake from the sixth minute.
Could they get back into the game with McTominay and Fred setting the pace? Was this to be the afternoon where Greenwood would exhibit the sort of selfless running that Cavani would have if he had been fit enough to play? Of course we knew the answers to this – the question is why didn’t the manager?
It was a case of waiting on until half-time to make the change, but just as against Liverpool, any hope of getting to the break with the scoreline retrievable was undone by kamikaze defending just before the opportunity – and so Bailly came off for Sancho, and United were in a familiar 4-2-3-1 that didn’t look likely to threaten Aston Villa or Everton, so was never likely to even worry a relaxed City. More changes followed, but City always looked the likelier to get another goal.
Around a year ago Roy Keane predicted that the players would get Solskjaer the sack; on the podcast to accompany this website a couple of weeks ago, Paul Parker said some United seemed to enjoy the idea of playing for United and the profile that comes with it rather than the reality of what is required when it comes to putting in performances.
There was a deeply concerning air of that which was stinking the place out – players who knew that the manager would be the one facing the majority of the criticism, so provides a convenient shield for them yet again.
It’s true – this tactical shape and the selection was all wrong for this game and this opponent. That played a big role. But the manager has got it right against this team before and there are – just like Liverpool – ways and means of losing. Capitulating like this is unacceptable. And, of course, the rot is not just here – it goes back to the defeat to Villa. The draw to Everton. The game against West Ham in the League Cup. It’s one thing to be defensively appalling like United have been – but they’d scarcely looked like scoring in those games. And in a couple of them they had more than twenty shots!
For Solskjaer’s safety-first approach with this incredibly pragmatic system to be so easily ripped to shreds is a huge red flag as it indicates that even his emergency setting was not resistant. Varane and Shaw (who went off with concussion) aside, his team were as close to first choice as most would have it from the squad available. And yet there seemed an acceptance that the best it was going to get was to keep the score down again.
He did not succumb to the long chants to bring on Van De Beek until there were less than ten minutes left – and the Dutchman’s first involvement was to give the ball away with an ambitious pass, leading to City almost scoring.
The club are certainly in some form of emergency now; if last season’s second was an overachievement, this is still a spectacular fall, with few able to hold their head high and say they’ve done a good job. Keane may well be right – Solskjaer certainly is going to pay the price for having too much faith in certain players.
But that’s his responsibility, even if those players’ presence at the club is a reminder of the terrible recruitment and managerial disasters in recent years.
Solskjaer has talked up aggression. He’s talked up the standards and size of the club. But one wonders if he has felt as if the reputation should stand for itself – and it was on the players to live up to it.
But it’s not a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It has been incumbent upon all to raise those standards. They are not being met. Solskjaer has turned poor runs around before but he has made a couple of gambles in this bad run – they haven’t resulted in a real indication that results will get better, because performances are getting worse. All areas of the team look unfamiliar and untethered to the next and if it’s not rectified by the coaches one can only conclude it is caused by them.
Even with a top class coach, a reasonable highest expectation of this squad – with its current midfield and poor options as soon as an injury impacts their defence or midfield – would be second or third behind Liverpool and/or City.
United are a long way off that at present. Solskjaer has surpassed most people’s expectations of what he was capable of on day one, but it is becoming clear that those concerns about his lack of experience – held by all, even those who have supported him and those who applauded him off the pitch today – are well-founded.
His words have been followed by two public statements in the shape of his team – the one that started was not good enough today, and even in the shape and close to the personnel of his first choice after the break, they showed not even a glimmer of the fight and spark that so personified the teams he played in. If it was a one off, then fair enough. But this is the rule, not the exception, and big things need to change.
Three years is a long enough time to expect better. Better results. Better performances. Better reactions to setbacks.
The club have a squad with greater potential than they’re currently showing. The next act of the owners will give an indication of their own ambition.
On the day United celebrated the 35th anniversary of the hiring of Sir Alex Ferguson, another managerial change now looks imminent.
In terms of performances, results, team choices and personnel, all signs point to when, not if – which is all rather inconvenient for the owners, who would probably prefer to wait until there is no pressure to spend money on either getting a manager out of a contract or getting in a manager who will likely want cash in January. How much faith do you have? Thought so.
But Solskjaer, having exceeded most of those expectations, is now a convenient shield for the owner’s behaviour of the last few months, and the longer they allow him to receive the vitriolic abuse that could affect his legacy, the even more shameful their actions become.
Solskjaer is not a quitter – that’s part of what makes him such a legendary figure at the club. The owners should not take advantage of that as gleefully as they do the finances.
Where to begin? It was a horror show that was predictable from the moment it was announced Lindelof and Bailly would be alongside each other in a three, behind a pragmatic midfield of McTominay and Fred. And so it proved.
Just as against Liverpool, it was clear to all that it wasn’t working. But just like then, the manager hoped to get through to the break without further disaster. It’s too much to ask from this side. That’s on the manager – who should have done something before the break to mix it up.
His answer at half-time was the shape he’s favoured – and it somehow contrived to create less than in the first half. It’s an indictment on the players as well as the manager, but he will, as stated above, pay the price.
De Gea 7
Van De Beek