Red Devils the ultimate flat-track bullies who can’t produce goods against rivals in ‘Big Six’
Manchester United’s draw with Chelsea showed why Manchester City are running away with the Premier League. Here were two teams who began the season with title hopes and will probably end up qualifying for the Champions League. They produced 90 minutes of such excruciating tedium it might have been designed to disprove the claim that watching sport is good for your mental health.
Chelsea’s caution may be forgiveable because Thomas Tuchel is still settling in as manager. United have no such excuse. Their performance at Stamford Bridge was the latest proof of how the sight of decent opposition brings out Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s inner-Mourinho.
United have the reputation of being an exciting side. The stats would seem to bear this out with their 53 goals making them top-scorers in the Premier League. But this total is distorted because United are the ultimate flat-track bullies.
Just five games – two wins over Southampton which produced 12 goals, two over Newcastle which yielded seven and the 6-2 win over Leeds United – account for almost half their tally. Take those out of the equation and United’s scoring rate is around the same as Arsenal’s and considerably less than that of Aston Villa, West Ham or Leeds.
The drop is even more pronounced when you look at United’s performances against their fellow members of the ‘Big Six’. In two games against both Chelsea and Arsenal and one each against Liverpool and Manchester City, Solskjaer’s side has not scored a single goal. There has been a 1-0 defeat by the Gunners and five appalling 0-0 draws which collectively constituted a yawning black hole of anti-excitement.
United play like Barcelona against weaker teams but like Burnley against their peers. They are the Middle Managers of the Premier League, ruthless to their subordinates, terrified that their equals will put one over on them and obsequiously deferential to their superiors.
Solskjaer’s United are probably the most boring ‘exciting team’ ever to play in the Premier League.
The American poet John Berryman wrote, “Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.” There are those who adopt the same attitude towards the Premier League. So after games like yesterday refuge is sought in talk about intriguing struggles, cat-and-mouse tactical battles and so on.
But, in the words of the proverb, “Cuir síoda ar ghabhar agus is ghabhar i gcónaí é.” Sometimes a game is just flat-out boring. Nobody could mistake this goat for the Greatest Of All Time.
All United offered in the way of goal attempts were efforts from outside the box by Fred and Mason Greenwood which flew wide and one from Scott McTominay which Edouard Mendy, as is his wont, made a meal of.
Chelsea had the game’s best opportunity when David De Gea made a fine save in the 48th minute after Ben Chilwell had set up Hakim Ziyech but they created little else though there were a couple of crosses which might have paid dividends had someone got on the end of them. That was about the height of it.
The awfulness of games like this is magnified by the absence of a partisan crowd whose oohs and aahs can make half chances sound like real chances and minor fouls sound like major incidents. Premier League Unplugged sometimes feels terribly exposed, like a wonky singer whose Auto-Tune has malfunctioned mid-performance.
We talk a lot about the awesome attacking power available to Solskjaer and it’s true that few teams in Europe look so irresistible when in full flow. But something is very wrong when Fernandes and Rashford and Greenwood and on other occasions Martial and Pogba and Cavani are absolutely peripheral in the games which matter most.
On the big days it’s McTominay and Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof and Luke Shaw who are to the fore for United.
Solskjaer supporters claim his timidity in big games is justified because his team are devastating on the counter-attack. Not against good opposition, they’re not. Against their main rivals they’re a ‘no goals and very few chances from six games’ level of devastating.
It’s as though the odd one out in their Big Six clashes, the 6-1 home defeat by Spurs, in the third week of the season, continues to haunt the manager. Having been embattled for so long, he may suspect that any similar scoreline could propel him towards the exit, even though that threat has probably receded by now.
So when United face another leading club they play with the fear instilled by a manager reluctant to release his players from the shackles he judges imperative against meaningful opposition.
The result is that United have thrown away their chance of making a serious title challenge. In seven games against big six teams, they’ve dropped 16 points. They trail Manchester City by 12. Had they won just two and lost five of those seven games, they’d be closer to the leaders than they are today. And if they’d fully utilised their attacking talent, they’d surely have done better than two wins from seven.
United may well come second but that will hardly be a vindication of their manager. It’s just three years since a runners-up spot under Mourinho which was quickly forgotten when the following season revealed the problems masked by that flattering finish.
Something similar may be on the cards next term when a rejuvenated Liverpool and a rebooted Chelsea will provide much sterner opposition. This season may come to be seen as the one when United missed a golden opportunity because their manager bottled it.
United face City next Sunday. Another thriller beckons.