Manchester United were dumped out of the Carabao Cup last night, losing 1-0 to West Ham United at Old Trafford. Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made several changes, naming a completely different XI from the one that beat the Hammers in the Premier League last weekend. Ultimately this would come back to bite Norwegian, as United played like a team of strangers while slumping to defeat against hungry opposition.
A raft of attacking substitutions, including the introductions of Bruno Fernandes and Mason Greenwood, as well as young forward Anthony Elanga replacing defender Alex Telles, were not enough to punish West Ham. For all their vaunted squad depth, United’s understudies struggled with marquee names like Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Pogba and Raphael Varane absent.
The season’s first available domestic cup is now off the Old Trafford radar, as United are forced to wait for a first trophy since 2017. Trophies have long been the measuring stick at the Red Devils, and significant importance has been placed upon Solskjaer claiming his first. Most observers think this would act as a sort of proof of concept. That all the work the former striker has done will only truly be ratified by a piece of silverware.
There is a debate to be had here of course, for example Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal have struggled terribly this season and last, but the Spaniard did secure an FA Cup in his first campaign. Trophies can be won during periods of uncertainty, just as creating a new, more stable culture at a troubled club can go unrewarded when the medals are handed out. But the discontent within United’s support perhaps comes from the idea this season was supposed to be different.
Ole’s initial remit was to restore the joy and pride in playing for Manchester United, something he knows all too well from his own time as a player there. Furthermore, he was expected to remove expensive, faltering players that had been stockpiled by previous regimes, and devise an identity and a workable style of play for what was left. It would be harsh to suggest Solskjaer has not achieved all of the above since taking over at Old Trafford, initially as a caretaker manager, in December 2018. However, after the club’s summer transfer business, coupled with a second-placed finish and a Europa League final appearance last season, this year was meant to be different.
United fired themselves into the title debate this summer by bringing in Cristiano Ronaldo. Arguably Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho were more important signings from a footballing perspective, but the Portuguese forward goes to clubs who expect to win things, and his arrival was seen as a statement of title intent. No longer do United feel like a team that just needs to get a trophy, any trophy, on the board. After nearly three years under Solskjaer, and the addition of world class players to a squad that already finished as runners-up last year, talk has turned to the top honours.
This would go some way to explaining United’s selection last night. The weekend's successful league side was entirely sacrificed to make way for veterans such as Juan Mata and Nemanja Matic, seldom-seen faces like Eric Bailly and Alex Telles, and the returning wounded such as Dean Henderson. For all Manchester United’s vaunted depth, with their attack apparently boasting more options than they know what to do with, Anthony Martial led the line and extended his run of goalless games to fifteen.
Shorn of the red-hot Ronaldo, assist-leader Pogba, recovering Marcus Rashford and absent Edinson Cavani, United’s stacked attack looked threadbare. Second-half cameos from Greenwood and Fernandes improved matters, but could not yield a goal. There is an argument that last night’s game exposed United’s supposed wealth of attacking options as a myth, as the players who played laboured to score against a West Ham side who were also much-changed from the weekend.
This would perhaps be a little unfair. Putting aside the fact Rashford and Cavani are yet to return fully, there is perhaps a good reason for United’s toothlessness in front of goal yesterday. Ronaldo is 36 years of age, and it is easy to see why he was preserved. Fernandes has rarely been rested by Solskjaer in previous seasons, and has looked exhausted towards the end of campaigns as a result.
The talismanic midfielder not playing could be an indication that Ole will take greater care of his superstar this season. Sancho for his part tried to make things happen, and showed improvements in his game as he adjusts to English top flight football after a summer move from Borussia Dortmund.
Perhaps the Carabao Cup is not high on Solskjaer’s list of priorities as he builds a squad with loftier goals in mind. Maybe the perceived squad depth is there, but with attacking absences and an XI that rarely plays together, we never quite saw it click as expected. Certainly while they underperformed on the night, the likes of Victor Lindelof, Donny van de Beek, Sancho, Lingard and Martial would get into the majority of Premier League sides. One game is always too small a sample size to truly judge a team. It remains to be seen whether this defeat is evidence of shifting priorities at Old Trafford, or an exposure of the depth of quality in the United squad.