Manchester United play like the Premier League’s second best side, but their 1-0 win over West Ham does little to convince that they will challenge for the title next season.
United showed many of their usual weaknesses against David Moyes’ side, though they clearly weren’t far from scoring more than their single goal. They should not count on more own goals helping them through in the manner that Craig Dawson offered up, but Mason Greenwood struck the post, and Lukasz Fabianski had to pull off a succession of decent saves to keep his side in with a chance until the final whistle.
But those chances going begging are half the problem. Greenwood burst onto the scene with a preternatural calmness in front of goal, blessed with Robin van Persie’s ability to take seventeen touches in the box to set himself up perfectly before releasing a rocket past the ‘keeper, or being able to ping in a vicious early strike while barely casting a glance at goal. However since then he has barely improved. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was one of the league’s best and most efficient strikers, so it is an indictment of his coaching inability that one of the best prospects in England continues to stagnate.
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Greenwood, of course, has a few years left before the penny needs to drop, so he should not be written off yet, but Marcus Rashford was off his game on Sunday night too, and Daniel James’ momentum is now only coming back after some earlier promise gave way to extended disappointment. He did not play against West Ham, but Anthony Martial’s goalscoring form from last season is a distant memory. One or both of Martial and Rashford will have to be sacrificed soon if United are to kick on. Edinson Cavani, too, is close to the edge at Old Trafford after missing much of the season for one reason or another, and he is reportedly keen to end his career in South America rather than spend one more year in Britain.
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While he might have attempted to claim the winner, Scott McTominay was largely an indifferent presence, as was Fred. There is plenty of willing running from the pair of them, but willing running is table stakes when it comes to succeeding in the top flight. Technique and intelligence are needed from deep-lying midfielders, and neither of them show enough of those qualities. The club were rescued by Bruno Fernandes, for a change, and the Portuguese player was at the heart of much of what United managed to do well, even if they couldn’t finish off their opponents. We can all see that the side is wanting for ruthlessness.
It is no surprise that Fernandes was integral to United’s goal. Regardless of how well or not he is playing, he often is able to contribute something decisive. Unfortunately for United it seems that the plan for Solskjaer is to hope that Fernandes intervenes rather than providing varied tactics to exploit space the opponent offers up, unless it is to try basic counter-attacking efforts.
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What is a surprise is that the team managed to hold on with just a single goal advantage. As they showed against AC Milan in midweek and on too many occasions in previous matches this season, the defence can't be trusted to keep things tight in the first or last 10 minutes of games. Both are psychologically crucial, and respectively give teams a headstart or hope when they come up against Solskjaer. Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire did well enough on Sunday night, but such a statement should not be a surprise. Maybe United have turned a corner defensively, but Moyes’ sides are so consistently cowardly and blunt in attack that there can be no real lessons drawn from a clean sheet here.
The three points were expected but by no means guaranteed, and Solskjaer can be proud of taking his side to second place in the league so far this season. A Champions League place is not assured until it is mathematically certain, but given more talented squads have struggled, Solskjaer deserves credit for adequately managing his resources. Unfortunately there is nothing in this display that he will ever be more than just that - adequate.
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