Manchester United endured further Premier League frustration as West Bromwich Albion remained resolute throughout at the Hawthorns on Sunday afternoon.
A special goal from Bruno Fernandes cancelled out Diagne’s early opener for the Baggies. United could conjure up nothing more in the second half, although a fantastic late header from Harry Maguire was denied by ex-Red Sam Johnstone to keep things level.
United’s good record against the bottom 14 has evaporated
Unlike at other points in the Solskjaer era, United have fared poorly against the big clubs this season. It’s been all draws and defeats. That was acceptable because, after November at least, the record against the rest of the league was outstanding. United saw off teams of lesser quality, even if it required coming from behind. That has stopped now.
United have dropped points to Sheffield United, Everton and now West Bromwich Albion. Now Solskjaer needs to lead his team to wins in big games to make up for it. That chance will come soon when United take on Chelsea and then City.
Move it quicker
It’s simple. United have to move the ball quicker against opposition like this. Solskjaer references it all the time, and will have made it abundantly clear at half-time. It was better in the second half but slow openings to games happens too often. Someone in the United side has to step up and increase the tempo when the side is flagging.
Two defensive midfielders – it’s one too many
Fred and McTominay provided United’s midfield partnership. First, before the criticism, an explanation. Solskjaer has directed United’s midfielders to drop into defence in recent weeks. It’s often been a trait of his United sides but particularly so recently. It allows the full-backs, who are in good form, to push higher up the pitch. The wingers come inside and United have options in the front line. Perhaps that explains the choice of Fred and McTominay.
On the other hand, without instruction to the contrary, Fred and McTominay offer little to United’s attack. In games where the Reds have 80% possession or more, that’s a detriment. United could have risked something else, a more attacking midfielder. Perhaps van de Beek, yes, or even Juan Mata.
After half-time, McTominay got forward more and was not a ‘defensive midfielder’. The point remained. After 78 minutes, Fred was replaced by van de Beek. A little too late. United and Solskjaer need to be braver.
United’s first-half display was particularly disheartening. Harry Maguire was involved in the build-up to Fernandes’ goal, though, and it highlighted a feature of his game. When United need some thrust going forward, it can often come from Fernandes but Maguire’s driving runs forward give it too. It’s a positive. What United’s coaching staff need to work on is creating the conditions where play moves quicker. That means Maguire passing quickly, as he did for the move which resulted in the Fernandes goal, but also better movement from teammates.
Others did the same after the break, in which Solskjaer must have made the point clear: get forward and capitalise on any space.
It also brings up another interesting point. Maguire does have this ball-carrying quality to his game but rarely gets to demonstrate it. Against teams who attack more, the risk of a charge forward is too much. A world-class defensive midfielder to cover would allow United to get some more drive from the back via Maguire.
Bruno Fernandes is contributing at least one goal or assist per game. He can play poorly and still provide a crucial goal. Those facts underline his importance to the team and his brilliance.
Into his second year as a United player now, one long-time follower of Fernandes’ remarked that as he continues to deliver on a weekly basis, his name will begin to be mentioned as a Ballon d’Or contender. He’s right.
Another key stat from Sunday’s game was that Fernandes has now been involved in 38 goals in his first 38 Premier League appearances. No player has achieved that other than Andy Cole, who scored 33 goals and assisted 13 in the same period of time.
And this 14th goal of the season was a special one. Shinned, yes, but still a goal of some quality. Rooney’s overhead kick against City and Van Persie’s wonderful volley against Villa were both special shins too.
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