Love Sport Radio's Manchester United Correspondent Wayne Barton looks back on a terrible night at Old Trafford
Manchester United succumbed to a home defeat against Burnley which will rank alongside the lowest moments the club have suffered in recent years.
There have been many such disappointments in these times but perhaps none quite so significant that every single issue was exposed in such a painful manner. First things first, Sean Dyche’s men were not only worthy winners, they were thoroughly comfortable winners. Goals from Chris Wood and Jay Rodriguez either side of half time gave Burnley a first win at Old Trafford since 1962 and the truth is they cantered to all three points.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came into the game with multiple headaches. Added to the news that Marcus Rashford is likely to miss months was the unwelcome addition of Victor Lindelof falling victim to a virus prior to the game and having to be replaced by Phil Jones.
Frustratingly for United fans, Solskjaer had responded to calls for new signings by insisting the players at the club must be given a chance to improve, first of all.
A noble message, if only the United fans hadn’t already heard, and seen, it all before.
It was a predictably pedestrian start. United defended with little authority - the collective rather than individuals to blame for the first half goal, which was conceded through a set piece when Wood collected a knock-down to fire into the goal. 43% of goals conceded by United this campaign had been from set-pieces. The hopes of Harry Maguire helping the organisation of the backline have only helped to an extent, and indeed, in games like today, the defence looks as erratic as ever.
It was the second time in a week where the zonal marking system was challenged. United do not have a certain authority with aerial balls and do not employ their stronger headers or taller players to go up against the opposition’s most dangerous on set pieces. It is all too easy for teams to simply ensure their threats go up against United’s weak areas. Liverpool did it on Sunday, and Burnley did it last night.
With so many players missing Utd are around half a team away from their strongest and even that is perhaps half a team away from being anywhere near a challenging side. They played like it in response to going behind, mustering up little in way of response. Rodriguez hit a spectacular second which again came from Jones’ area of the pitch. On this occasion, it may be harsh to heap blame on the much-maligned defender, but United’s defence has often been heralded as the saving grace of an otherwise poor season. No longer.
It was another difficult shift for Dan James, who has played a lot of football in his first season, and perhaps this is the best example of irresponsible squad planning. Solskjaer has discussed about not buying players and giving players chances. It is a repeatedly hollow comment now he’s a year in the job.
He made changes, but even when he did, his team barely threatened, never offering up a goalscoring opening of note, losing 0-2 at home with a whimper. It was much too easy for Burnley, comfortable, indicative of other teams’ and even their own recent visits here, only now, they went away with all three points instead of just one.
Solskjaer avoided a barrage of criticism earlier this week because the nature of the loss at Anfield was not exactly as insipid as it was last year but United fans have become much too familiar with lowering expectations and they voted with their feet with ten minutes left.
They knew not to expect a comeback, and they were right. There have been many contenders to the throne, and in this month alone there has been one, but this may well rank as the worst Old Trafford performance for at least seven years.
Some have pointed the finger at Solskjaer - saying it is a sign of poor management that a team can play like they have in recent games, and yet do so well against the likes of Spurs and Manchester City as they did last month. Such a point only highlights the paucity of United’s options.
In those games there was Lindelof, Shaw, McTominay, Rashford and Lingard, none of whom started last night. This is not to make a point of those players being excellent, rather, it is a damning reference to just how the team’s form can drop off a cliff, and how poor the options United have for replacements are, by just those players being missing.
The injuries almost feel like a convenient shield, something to excuse away the dismal form, something even to serve as an indication of better days to come once players are back. It serves as a reason to deflect from transfer stories. It doesn’t wash, though, with United fans who know that even at full strength their squad isn’t good enough, and even at full strength they could well have put in a performance similar to the one witnessed against Burnley.
The time to bring in players is urgent, as it was in the summer; quite how it has got to the point where we are in the last week in January with no imminent news tells you everything you need to know about how well-thought out this transfer window has been, and how committed the club are to backing the manager.
Solskjaer came in as a firefighter and did remarkably well in many aspects. It is fair to use those games against Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur in December (though it seems a lifetime ago) as indicators of what the manager can do with a stronger squad of players.
And even if you give him the benefit of the doubt (and many don’t) about the injuries to Rashford and Pogba, you still have to look at the team which was fielded last night and the options available and wonder if there were better solutions elsewhere. What must James Garner be thinking? Dylan Levitt, who impressed so much in a European performance and has been in the wilderness ever since? Timothy Fosu-Mensah, who did so well against Newcastle a couple of weeks ago in the U23’s and hasn’t been seen in a subsequent first team? Or Angel Gomes, who supporters would at least like to see be given an opportunity to impress where Andreas Pereira is clearly struggling.
United have seen so many of this squad already prove that their standard is, simply, reflective of where the club currently are and not where they want to be. Solskjaer has been in the job for long enough to know it, and supporters are keen for him to repeat his ruthless axe swinging of the summer.
If he doesn’t, he will become the latest casualty. It is a major source of disappointment, not least because of those early signs of promise, but he can only have himself to blame by continuing to give chances to players who have put in so many performances like last night over the past year.
Quite how things turnaround from this point is unclear, but it is becoming more likely, considering reports, that Solskjaer will not be the man given that responsibility.
If we are assessing the way the land lies by the atmosphere last night, then the owners and Ed Woodward remain the public villains; maybe Solskjaer would curry some favour making a public complaint about the lack of investment in a squad desperately in need of it.
It is a grim time indeed for Manchester United supporters, as they know that even if investment is now forthcoming between now and the end of January, it is hardly likely to be anything other than the sort of impulsive and expensive gamble that has contributed to this mess in the first place.
De Gea 5
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