It happened again. It keeps happening. Manchester United came up against a well-drilled opposition who gave them the ball and waited for their moment. It only ever ends in trouble.
A week ago, United were revelling in a 5-0 victory over RB Leipzig, which itself came off the back of a win away to Paris Saint-Germain, but defeats to Arsenal and Istanbul Basaksehir over the past five days have brought them crashing back down to earth. To reality, even.
Basaksehir’s game plan in their 2-1 win on Wednesday was nothing new. United have been undone by durable, patient sides constantly during Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign. It happened against Bournemouth, Newcastle, Burnley, Crystal Palace and more last season. The same has occurred against Crystal Palace, Tottenham, Arsenal and now Basaksehir in the still-embryonic 2020-21 campaign.
“We’ve played against a team well set up, well organised, and we weren’t good enough. That’s it,” Solskjaer told BT Sport after the latest defeat, but it feels like United are simply incapable of beating any side who run out the same effective game plan.
What was even worse in this loss was that United’s defending was absolutely criminal.
The opening goal came when, a good 10 seconds after a short corner was taken, all four of United’s defenders were still stranded up field and Nemanja Matic was their last covering player, a full 75 yards away from his own goal. It took one simple ball over the top from Basaksehir to find Demba Ba all on his own on halfway for a run in on goal.
The second might have been even worse. Juan Mata’s heavy touch from a misjudged pass by Bruno Fernandes was intercepted in the United half and they were immediately on the back foot. But then Axel Tuanzebe was attracted to the ball, Harry Maguire raced across to cover and suddenly United had three defenders at the near post and nobody at the far as the unmarked Edin Visca slid the ball past Dean Henderson. You’d have been embarrassed if your school team had defended like that.
Solskjaer called the first goal “unforgivable,” and added of the second: “We’re not very well organised to counter-press and win the ball back when we’re playing.” But surely that is one of the fundamentals in football training? If we lose the ball in a dangerous position, how do we react?
For United and Solskjaer there feels like a crunch spell coming. They are due at Everton on Saturday in a game that has all the hallmarks of a defeat. They will arrive there on a short turnaround after their trip back from Turkey, Everton have started the season well and need their own response to back-to-back losses, and Toffees boss Carlo Ancelotti has the tactical nous to play on United’s shortcomings. Oh yes, and United have already lost 4-0 at Goodison under Solskjaer back in April 2019 when Everton were nowhere near as good a team as they are now.
“You get a reality check every time you play a football game,” Solskjaer added last night. “Nothing becomes history quicker than a game of football.”
The same can be said for managers, though. And if the Norwegian isn’t to follow the path trodden by David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho in recent seasons, then not only does he have to start getting results on a more consistent basis, but he also needs to show that he and his side can learn from the many repetitive setbacks that have plagued his Old Trafford spell thus far.