Manchester United played poorly but picked up a much-needed three points to move back into second in the Premier League.

Manchester United win despite European hangover

United played well in Turin on Thursday to dispatch of Real Sociedad. Their first half performance against Newcastle was seriously poor but still they took three points. That is big in this difficult season. It takes United above Leicester City in second-place. Perhaps more importantly, it extends the gap between United and top four rivals West Ham (4), Chelsea (6) and Liverpool (9).

Solskjaer delays decisions on De Gea and Lindelof

Harry Maguire’s header was poor and Allan Saint-Maximim took full advantage. The England captain should never have had to make the header though. David De Gea is not a proactive goalkeeper and makes life harder for his defenders. He remains fully capable of fine saves but it’s not enough.

His attempted save for Saint-Maximin’s goal was half-hearted and came after he should have claimed the ball in the first place. Dean Henderson is waiting for a prolonged chance in the team and should be starting league games now.

The same applies for Victor Lindelof who has a better alternative on the substitutes bench in Eric Bailly. The Ivorian gets too injured too often but a better defender than Lindelof and better covers the weak areas of Maguire’s game.

Manchester United v Newcastle United - Premier League
(Photo by Oli Scarff – Pool/Getty Images)

Manchester United’s worst defensive structure for years

United’s coaching staff are overseeing a woefully inadequate defence. The attacking talent can often cover up for defensive weaknesses but the structure is simply not there.

 

United’s press is ineffective; players gamble on a case-by-case basis, unsupported by teammates and leaving gaps behind them. The wingers track back on a case-by-case basis. When Mason Greenwood does get back and involved defensively, United look a far more balanced and capable side. When he doesn’t, they struggle. In midfield, United have players who commit early, either in the press or in the tackle, and that makes counter-attacks against United all too easy.

There is so much to be fixed. Blame can be handed out on an individual basis for errors but the bigger picture is that of a poorly-coached defence.

Dan James: The ideal squad player

Three goals in three games, two of which were composed finishes, is exactly what United needed from Dan James. His work ethic and recent positive impact highlight the need and benefit of good squad players for big teams.

Manchester United's Welsh midfielder Daniel James (C) prepares to shoot at goal to score his team's second goal during the English Premier League football match between Manchester United and Newcastle at Old Trafford in Manchester, north west England, on February 21, 2021. (Photo by Stu Forster / POOL / AFP)
(Photo by STU FORSTER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

James was oft-criticised last season for his ineffectiveness against low blocks. Solskjaer and his coaching staff have a good record for helping players improve in attack. It’s possible that James has got better in such situations. The sample size is not big enough to know yet but this goal raises the question: has James improved since last season? It’s worth watching over the next few weeks.

For now, though, he has six goals in 12 games this season. That’s good.

Futile Martial

Rarely has a striker moved so little. The contrast between Anthony Martial’s static, futile display against Newcastle and the performances of Edinson Cavani since he became the side’s first-choice striker is so stark that it’s embarrassing. Martial spent his entire time on the pitch waiting for others to do something. He simply let the game pass him by.

ALLIANZ STADIUM, TORINO, ITALY - 2021/02/18: Anthony Martial of Manchester United Fc  looks on during warm up before  Uefa Europa League Round of 32 match between Real Sociedad de Futbol and Manchester United Fc . Manchester United Fc wins 4-0 over Real Sociedad de Futbol.
(Photo by Marco Canoniero/LightRocket via Getty Images)

It’s worth bearing in mind that this is a remarkable season. Some players will struggle without crowds. Martial may be one of those. The physical and mental demands of the season are without comparison. The point remains, though, that Martial should not be starting games at the moment, especially with Greenwood, Amad and others knocking on the door.

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