Manchester United’s season hit a new low as they were held to an embarrassing 1-1 draw by Huddersfield. It was yet another performance to underline the scale of the job facing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer…
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Huddersfield had lost 23 of their last 25 games in all competitions. In their last six alone, they had conceded 21 goals. The Terriers, relegated since March and on course to record one of the lowest points totals in Premier League history, were sinking into the Championship without a trace.
Enter Manchester United.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side arrived at the John Smith’s Stadium with lingering aspirations of a top-four finish and a schedule which – as well as being free of European commitments – pitted them against two relegated sides. The chance was there to end a dismal season on a high, but they blew it, their Champions League hopes stubbed out as lowly Huddersfield treated their fans to an unexpectedly happy send-off.
It could – and most definitely should – have been a different story. Scott McTominay’s opener arrived after eight minutes. It seemed the floodgates might open just as they did in Huddersfield’s 5-0 loss to Liverpool last weekend. Instead, United turned in another listless, directionless display to emphasise just how far behind their old rivals they have fallen.
Isaac Mbenza, the scorer of Huddersfield’s equaliser, had not found the net in his previous 22 appearances this season. Against this United side, though, there is always a chance.
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Their resurgence under Solskjaer, that thrilling period in which they won 14 games out of 17 and evoked memories of Manchester United’s glorious past, now feels like a distant memory. At the most important point of the season, they have managed to win only two games out of 10.
It is to Solskjaer’s credit that United were even in a position to finish in the top four at all given where Jose Mourinho left them. But the Norwegian has inherited an imbalanced squad desperately lacking in defensive quality and their frailties were plain to see on Sunday.
Twice – once in the first half and once in the second – Phil Jones inexplicably passed the ball straight to a Huddersfield player when under no pressure deep in his own half. When the hosts’ equaliser arrived, it came straight from a punt upfield by goalkeeper Jonas Lossl. Gary Neville described Luke Shaw’s attempted clearance as “embarrassing”.
United have now conceded a scarcely believable total of 52 goals this season. It is more than Newcastle, Crystal Palace, Leicester, Everton or Wolves and seven more than they have conceded in any other Premier League campaign.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Solskjaer sounds more worried about being caught by the sides beneath them than catching those above.
Attitude in question
United’s individual errors were infuriating for Solskjaer, who will be under no illusions that the impending rebuild must focus primarily on their defence, but it’s the overall attitude of the squad that will worry him most. “Solskjaer has got the job and they have just switched off,” said Neville. “There is no other explanation.”
Indeed, while United supporters are entitled to wonder why the United hierarchy made Solskjaer’s appointment permanent with six weeks of the season still to go, the players can make no excuses for the dramatic dip in performances. Paul Pogba struck the crossbar twice at the John Smith’s Stadium but his failure to track back, particularly in the first half, summed up United’s issues.
Solskjaer has talked about wanting United to be the fittest, hardest-working team in the division but they are a long way off that target right now. According to Premier League tracking data, this was the eighth time in their last nine games that they have been outrun by their opponents.
To turn the situation around will require a complete shift not just in physicality but in mentality. At times against Huddersfield, like in so many recent games, their tempo was pedestrian. “They’re walking around the pitch, those red shirts,” said a disgusted Neville at one point during the second half. “Look at them, walking.”
Sanchez typifies mismanagement
United’s malaise is a result of years of mismanagement and it is typified by Alexis Sanchez. The Chilean was handed his first start since the start of March against Huddersfield, only to leave the field with an injury early in the second half having failed to register a single shot on goal.
It summed up his disastrous spell at the club. Sanchez became the Premier League’s highest-paid player when United signed him from Arsenal last January but since then he has only scored five goals in 45 appearances. This season, he has only started nine Premier League games.
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His astronomical contract further complicates what already looks like a hugely daunting summer transfer window.
United’s need for defensive reinforcements is obvious but it does not end there. The midfield, already dysfunctional, is set to lose Ander Herrera and Juan Mata as they near the end of their contracts and there are question marks over Pogba’s future, too. Romelu Lukaku is another big earner but he has gone backwards this season and he is not the only one. David De Gea’s form has deteriorated as he continues to stall on a new contract.
On top of all that, there’s a need to change the culture of the entire squad. “It reminds me of the Tottenham group that Mauricio Pochettino picked up, when it had [Emmanuel] Adebayor and [Younes] Kaboul and [Vlad] Chiriches and [Etienne] Capoue,” added Neville.
“You had a group of players that just looked like individuals. There was no real spirit amongst it. So he just dismantled it, piece by piece. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is going to need to dismantle this squad piece by piece.”
The problem, of course, is that the club appear ill-equipped to help him with that. There is still no sporting director in place at Old Trafford and, from Fred and Sanchez to Eric Bailly and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, it would be an understatement to say Ed Woodward’s recent dealings do not inspire confidence.
“It’s never good news finishing outside the top four but it shows us where we are,” said Solskjaer after the game. “We’re not living in fantasy land thinking we can challenge for the top two because they’ve run away with it. We’re many levels away from them at the moment, but that’s the size of the challenge and it’s a great challenge for us.”