Monday 14 October 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Manchester United must act fast to halt shambolic fall from grace'


Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer gestures to substitute Tahith Chong during the Premier League defeat to Newcastle United at St James' Park, Newcastle
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer gestures to substitute Tahith Chong during the Premier League defeat to Newcastle United at St James' Park, Newcastle
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Enough is enough. Manchester United can't go on like this. They're a bloody shambles.

The most telling thing about their defeat by Newcastle was how routine it seemed. The home team did not need to scale any great heights.

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Like United's dismal defeat at West Ham a fortnight ago, this felt like a contest between equals with the home team more committed. Yet Newcastle should have been ideal fodder for the provision of 'United backlash' and 'Crisis? What crisis?' headlines.

This was a team in the relegation zone, coming off a 5-0 trouncing by Leicester City, with an endangered manager and fans who'd lost faith. The four changes Steve Bruce made had a last throw of the dice feel about them. Yet Newcastle were never troubled by the visitors.

The poverty of United's displays is creating some unlikely heroes. Two weeks ago West Ham's one-club journeyman Mark Noble looked a midfield maestro. Yesterday it was Matthew Longstaff's turn.

The 19-year-old hadn't previously played a single minute of Premier League football but his verve and energy indicted United's midfield lassitude. When he struck the crossbar with a half-volley in the 27th minute, it seemed sad that a dream debut had been denied by a matter of inches.

Agony and ecstasy: A dejected David de Gea reacts after the game as Newcastle’s Emil Krafth celebrates with goal-scorer Matthew Longstaff. Photo: Reuters
Agony and ecstasy: A dejected David de Gea reacts after the game as Newcastle’s Emil Krafth celebrates with goal-scorer Matthew Longstaff. Photo: Reuters

But the dream had only been deferred. In the 71st minute the kid let fly from a similar distance and beat David de Gea again. This time he went low rather than high and found the net.

On an embarrassing afternoon for United, the nadir came late on as Fred squared up to the teenager who'd outplayed him. This was one of two occasions when the Brazilian seemed animated, the other being when he disagreed with ref Mike Dean about a drop ball.

Claims Solskjaer 'just doesn't have the players' ring hollow when you compare the relative contributions of Longstaff and Fred. The former is a raw local youngster who's come up through Newcastle's youth system. The second is an experienced international who cost United £47million.

Mohamed Salah cost Liverpool £10million less than that, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino combined just £16million more. The Reds also got James Milner for nothing.

Watching Fred ballooning a 30-yarder hopelessly wide in the 79th minute and allowing a simple pass to dribble off his boot and into touch two minutes later, it seemed like United have been the victims of a practical joke.

Solskjaer didn't sign Fred but he did make Harry Maguire the world's most expensive defender. A fortnight ago Maguire was caught badly flat-footed when Andriy Yarmolenko opened the scoring for West Ham.

Yesterday he missed United's best chance, a six-yard free header on the stroke of half-time. Steve Bruce would have scored it. Not Steve Bruce in his heyday. Steve Bruce now.

Maguire added insult to injury by indulging in what can best be described as 'go on then shoot and we'll see how smart you are' defending as Longstaff lined up the winner. Liverpool got Joel Matip for free. Just saying.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looks on from the sidelines. Photo: Reuters/Scott Heppell
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looks on from the sidelines. Photo: Reuters/Scott Heppell

A dispiriting slackness infects United's performances these days. When they were given a last gasp free-kick in a dangerous position, Scott McTominay threw himself to the ground looking for a penalty and De Gea made a belated incursion into the box before Andreas Pereira struck the ball over the end-line. The impression was of a team in chaos.

United would be better than this had Jose Mourinho stayed in charge. They would be better under Louis van Gaal. Complaints about the style of football employed by that duo seem faintly hilarious now that United have become perhaps the dullest side in the Premier League.

At St James' Park, they could not create a single chance from open play. The nine goals they've scored from eight games is one fewer than second-from-bottom Norwich City have managed. It's just one more than Tammy Abraham's total for Chelsea.

The former United players who fearlessly lacerated Mourinho and Van Gaal for betraying the club's tradition have gone a lot easier on Solskjaer. But the pussyfooting of the Old Trafford old pals' brigade can't obscure the fact that their former team-mate is out of his depth.

Solskjaer's managerial record, winning two Norwegian League titles out of seven with Molde and getting Cardiff City relegated from the Premier League before being sacked after a disastrous start to the following Championship season, wouldn't on its own have got him within an ass's roar of the United job. Few Premier League clubs would consider his a compelling CV.

Yet United believed that a player from the club's greatest era might in some magical way transmit the winning mystique of those days to the current team.

The presence of Mike Phelan on the bench and rumours of advice from Alex Ferguson reinforced this notion. It has proved to be sentimental nonsense.

Inexorable United have only one hope of avoiding an inexorable decline to permanent also-ran status. It is a huge stroke of luck for them that, despite his protestations to the contrary, Mauricio Pochettino's time at Spurs appears to be nearing the end.

The stars may be aligning to bring the Argentinian to Old Trafford but United will need to be bold. Should Pochettino end up at Real Madrid, it will be a terrible admission of impotence by the former English kingpins.

United's fans are currently moving from anger to resignation. The 'I'm not cross, I'm just disappointed. I've given up expecting anything better at this stage' phase is never a healthy one in a relationship. Things go rapidly downhill from there.

In the great western 'High Noon', the cowardly deputy is told: "It takes more than big broad shoulders to make a man, Harvey." It also takes more than big shirt sales, big ticket sales, a big share price and a big social media presence to make a big football club.

Do Manchester United realise that anymore? We'll see soon enough.

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