Cristiano Ronaldo’s penalty in the latter stages decided a poor game at Carrow Road, with Manchester United flattering to deceive against bottom of the table Norwich City.
Ralf Rangnick could not have been very impressed as his side played in a fashion far removed from his famed style.
We’ve been here a few times with decreasing returns. Under Louis van Gaal we had an entertaining pre-season that died a death on the opening day of the season. Under Jose Mourinho the professional pragmatic start lasted a month before being embarrassed by Manchester City at Old Trafford. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s run of good performances is exaggerated because of the run of good results, which is a separate thing entirely.
And, with thirty minutes of ambitious pressing in the bank against Crystal Palace last week, United’s players are back to their lost and wandering selves, playing with little intensity and trying aimless and directionless flicks and kicks, carelessly losing possession repeatedly to the point where it seemed destined to cost them a result.
United actually fashioned the three biggest chances in the first half – Telles had a free-kick deflected on to the top of the bar, Ronaldo had a moment where he cut back and shot on his left, and Maguire got his head on to a free-kick.
But Norwich created openings which suggested they were more on their game – and so it proved in the second half as they upped their own pressure. Maguire was caught out early on and De Gea had to be alert for the first, but certainly not the last, time. Pukki then tested him ten minutes later.
In attack, Fernandes and Rashford were so wasteful, with Sancho unlucky to be the one hooked for Mason Greenwood. Soon after, Victor Lindelöf had to come off which looked like a concerning chest injury – United took no chances considering events of the last year, and Bailly came on.
Just when it seemed United would have to try and see out a lucky scoreless draw, they were given a boost – Max Aarons wrestled Ronaldo to the ground in the box, and the legendary forward was happy to oblige with the tumble. His penalty sent Tim Krul the wrong way.
Norwich then switched it up – Kabak forced a fantastic save from De Gea, and Bailly was forced to block from Gilmour.
United’s better chances came as the hosts poured forward. Rashford had one moment of class right at the end, putting the ball on a plate for Ronaldo – he somehow shot over. Fernandes then had a shot wide before Norwich threw everything, but failed to score, in injury time.
Rangnick now has two wins from two in the league – but he will be far from impressed with what he saw. Maybe, considering the false starts of the past, this is for the best.
It was an unchanged side with another 4-2-2-2 shape. That much is new, though the performance was concerning in its familiarity. The midfield was arguably the best thing about United’s game today, with other areas looking poor – Dalot and Telles have had the good fortune of their positional rivals being so out of form but this was not a game that convinced anyone that they were good enough.
There was little of the high pressing of the early stages of last week and you wondered for a moment if the quick tiredness of that first trial last time out would have the manager instructing them in lessons of conservation. But there were no bursts of pressing and no level of control, just an apathetic and slow approach from a squad of players who generally look like they can get away with just enough. They could today. They won’t be able to in most other games – and there’s no hiding place.
You can’t criticise the tactics – indeed, it’s not a great look for this squad who were able to hide behind the inexperience of Solskjaer when the criticisms of ‘they look directionless’ were levelled. Now they have experience and clear direction and still put in a display of such lethargy.
Gary Neville suggested afterwards that it could be a result of a hard week on the training pitch. Maybe. But as a squad, these players are running out of excuses.
De Gea 8
Van De Beek