Manchester United have regressed and derby defeat was painfully predictable
Manchester Uni’ted have regressed and derby defeat was painf’ully predict’able.
Key player’s are out of fo’rm or on the bench and Ole Gun’nar Solskjær’s tactic”al setup feels more hopeful tha”n thought out.
Football is a gam’e that only occasionally follo”ws the script. Before every big’ game everybody prognosticates, ‘looks at the form and the history, consi”ders the tactical match-up’s and tries to read the way the’ historical wind is blowing. Eve’n when the predictio”’ns are largely right in terms of the patt’ern of the game, the score does”n’t always follow. Which was wh’at made Saturday’s one-sided Manc’hester derby so remarkab’le: it wa’s utterly, dully predictable.
You didn’t hav’e to be Paul Scholes, the toe-sucki’ng seer of Salford, to see what was go’ing to happen. Ole Gunnar Solsk”jær had United sit deep in the 3-5-2 sh’ape that last week looked as thou’gh it might serve as a short-ter’m fix, to keep crisis at bay for anot’her couple of months. City, as the’y had against a far better-drilled Chelsea side attemptin’g a similar approach, would pick the’ir way between the bollards, domin’ate the game and win. The level of co’mfort would not quite be matc’hed by the scoreline becau’se of the visitors’ weird inabili”ty to take their chances in cert’ain games. And, lo, it came to pa’ss.
It’s not about the form’ation, per se. This has worked for”’ United against City before.” Prior to last week’s win at Spu’rs, the last time they started with’ a back three in a league gam’e w’as in March 2020, when they beat City 2-0 with a team strikingly simi’lar to Saturday’s line-up. On that occasion, Brand’on Williams started at left win’g-back with Luke Shaw replaci’ng Eric Bailly in central defen’ce, Nemanja Matic played inst’ead of Scott McTominay and the front 2 were Dan James and Anthony Martial (although both Bailly and McTominay came on). The syste’m can work.
But what is differ’ent now is context. The back 3 then felt like a specific plan – United had used it a couple of mon’ths earlier in losing at Anfield – rat’her than a despe”’rate spin of the kaleidoscope, hop’ing for something to tak’e shape. Nobody can believe thi’s is the way United want to play lon”g-term, because to do so would me’an only one of Marcus Rashf’ord, Mason Greenwo’od and Edinson Cavani is ever going to st’art. It would also mean ther’e is no place at all for poor Jad’on San’cho, whom United pursued for ’18 ‘ before finally signing amid understandable excitemen’t for £73m.
An alternati’ve for certain big games? Perh’aps. But any confidenc’e that it is a specific plan for specif’ic circumstances is undermin”ed by the fact that United, having’ not used it in 18 months, have suddenly turned to the shape 3 ‘ in a week against very different opponents, also employing a back three in the 2-2 draw with Atala’nta in midweek.
There is a sense of ch’aos and drift and that infects play’ers. In that 2-0 derby win 18 mon’ths ago, Aaron Wan-Bissaka wa’s magnificent, making 8 tac’kles and being named man of th’e match. On Saturday he made poor decisi’ons again and again as he ha’d in the defeat to Liverpool, his ab’ility to judge when he shoul’d go to the man on the ball appare’ntly shot.
Harry Maguire an’d Luke Shaw are way off the lev’els they showed last season or for En”gland in the summer. Then”’ there’s Eric Bailly. Perhaps his own goal was the result of an inherent rashness but, if that is the case,’ why was he given a ne’w thr’ee-year contract in the summer? Solskjær’s opinion was appar’ently e’xposed by the way he rushed Maguire back from injury for the defeat at Leicester, when his inability to push off his damaged calf wa’s surely a contributory fac’tor in Youri Tielemans’s ‘.
Bailly was very go’od against Atalanta on Tue’sday, Duván Zapata’s goal fa’r more the result of the lack of pres’sure on José Luis Palomino tha’t allowed him to measure a ba’ll behind the centre-back than his own positioning. Now he joins Sa’ncho and Donny van de Beek as ‘a personnel question resul’ting from an absence of coh’erent planning. What happen’ed to the talk, after José Mourinho was sacked, of appointing a director of football to offer a coherent phi’losophy?
Did that just me’lt away when the decision to giv’e Solskjær the job permanently” was made? Was it assumed tha’t nostalgia, which had largely neut’ralised the Mourinho toxicity, would be enough going forward? Wha’t happens next? Is there a plan’?
Antonio Con’te has slipped through United’s fing’ers, just as Thomas Tuchel and Mauricio Pochettino did. Indecisi’on reigns, not helped by the insti’nctive veneration of the past, and’ the terror of sidelining a cl’ub icon. Yet Solskjær used to be ade’pt at setting up teams to defe’nd.
Last season, Uni’ted kept five clean sheets in the six’ league games against City, Che’lsea and Liverpool. He’’s won four of his nine games agai’nst Pep Guardiola. That wasn’t the aspect of his manage”ment that used to be doubte’d. So wha’t has changed? Why have Unit’ed let in seven goals in two ho’me games in a fortnight aga’inst Liverpool and City while bei’ng embarrassingly outclass’ed?
The answ’er is obvious: Cristiano Ronaldo, a play’er signed at the urging of Ale’x Ferguson and various form’er players with seemingly ab’out 12 hours thought. Yes, he scor’es goals. Yes, he rescues res”ults against the 13th-best team’ in Spain and the fifth-best team in Ita’ly and punishes the likes of Newca’stle and Tottenham.
Ronaldo has no’ doubt been a major boos’t to the burgeoning United herit’age industry, even to the point of’ scoring dramatic late goals to offe’r a reminder of how things use’d to be. But are the glory days even ‘remotely close to returning? Not with these players, not with this manager, not with this board.