Manchester United is stumbling without a solid basis on which to develop | Jonathan Wilson On a gloomy afternoon, the good news for Manchester United is that their performance was good in sections. Those moments were few and far between, confined almost completely to the first half, but they were still preferable to the November derby at Old Trafford.
To the extent that it caused Manchester City problems, using Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba as central attacking players worked, at least until halftime. But, if you’re going to defend like the visitors did, none of it matters. Manchester United is stumbling without a solid basis on which to develop
Manchester United is stumbling without a solid basis on which to develop
This was United doing what they’ve done since Ralf Rangnick took over: one half was far superior to the other. City, on the other hand, won the half in which United performed better, 2-1, and the other, 2-0, going into the last five minutes. The fact that they did not win by a larger margin was due to David de Gea’s outstanding performance and their own well-known weaknesses in front of goal.
Maybe it was just a quick fix from the interim manager. Perhaps the approach would have been more traditional if Cristiano Ronaldo had been available or Marcus Rashford had not been in such poor form. However, there were some nice connections between the wide pairings of Anthony Elanga and Jadon Sancho, as well as Pogba and Fernandes, none more so than in the counter that equalized. If you squinted really hard, you might be able to see something that could lead to a better future for United.
But whether it’s worthwhile to squint is a different story. Rangnick spoke last week about the importance of consistency, but United lacks it and will continue to lack it until it is apparent what Rangnick’s consulting role will entail. You can question the professionalism of players who are hesitant to master a complex new system for a man who could go in June, but not the logic. And there must be a growing realization that this defense is hopeless.
The first goal was a perfect example. When Bernardo Silva picked up the ball on the left, there appeared to be no immediate threat, but he exchanged passes with Jack Grealish and, as the ball was cut back, Kevin De Bruyne was steaming unchallenged towards the centre of the box, with predictable consequences. Perhaps it’s a coaching issue, or perhaps it’s a matter of individuals losing concentration or self-confidence, but either way, it’s undercutting everything else.
It goes without saying that Harry Maguire is not having a good time. A player who can appear to be so commanding has become a liability, especially in the less demanding realm of international football. Maguire’s appearance counts against him when he is playing poorly because he seems awkward, bumbling into challenges with the grace of an Easter Island figure being hauled down from the quarry.
He won the ball from De Bruyne in the first half after mistiming his challenge so horribly that the Belgian couldn’t grasp what had happened and rushed into his prone legs. The ball popped loose from De Gea’s save and dribbled through Maguire’s legs as he sought to turn for the second City goal. It was more a case of bad luck than anything else, but it looked bad. The worse things appear, the more criticism Maguire receives and the more despondent he appears. Of course, the third goal was deflected off his knee; if things continue as they are, he’ll be devoured by a whale or squished by a falling piano on the way home.
But the idea isn’t to point out that Maguire is out of form or luck; it’s to point out that he is constantly exposed by United, who have come to rely on him in a way that doesn’t seem fair to anyone. The 4-2 setback against Leicester, which signaled the beginning of the end of Ole Gunnar Solskjr’s tenure, was the result of hurrying him back when he was plainly not totally healthy.
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Raphael Varane was not present with Covid, but he has been changed from Real Madrid’s graceful figure into a scarecrow-like defender, lurching around unconvincingly while bits of straw fall out of his sleeves. Victor Lindelöf has never been particularly poised, but he, too, has succumbed to the overall clumsiness: in the build-up to the second goal, he charged Phil Foden as he raised the ball over him with all the mistaken certainty of Wile E Coyote running off a cliff.
It doesn’t help that the holding midfielders only provide sporadic coverage and that the gap behind the fullbacks is so easily exploited. Being a United centre-back must be a nightmare right now. But, in addition to a lack of defensive organization, there has also been a lack of nerve and will. And the future will never be built without appropriate foundations.
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