“So there has been a mini-revival, but I don’t think Ole will be sat comfortable in his chair. I think he realises he is one game away from the clouds circling again,” said Gary Neville, who has seen this pattern unfold too many times to be fooled by victories over Partizan Belgrade, Norwich City and a green Chelsea. After 90 minutes of rain, wind and insipid, uninspired football on the south coast, Manchester United are cast in darkness again. Mini-revival over, this is unmistakably a mid-table Manchester United side.
This is is still a United side that has not won back-to-back Premier League games since early March. This is still a United side that has not kept a clean sheet away in the Premier League since early February. We are now in early November and this is a United side that continues to look less than the sum of its parts, regardless of the forced narrative of transition and youth that demands patience.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer spoke on Friday about a happier Manchester United squad for whom victories had bred confidence, but that confidence was only visible for about five pulsating minutes in Bournemouth. The very first time the Cherries threatened to hurt United, the red balloon was popped. All momentum, all urgency, all movement, all creativity instantly disappeared from United’s game, and would not reappear again until the final few minutes, by which time Bournemouth had absolutely no fear and no intention of bending to their will.
Where was the movement and interplay between Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford that had left United fans giddy at Carrow Road? Less than a week on, they were peripheral and disjointed. Where was the midfield control of Scott McTominay that impressed us at Stamford Bridge? A few days on, he was wasteful and passive. No fizz, no flow, no f***ing chance that this United side – without considerable investment, a change in manager or both – will finish in the top four.
Bournemouth’s goal was taken beautifully by Josh King but three-quarters of a United defence that was improved at a £130m cost this summer was at fault. The raw figures might show that United have improved defensively this season, but they still look cumbersome, slow and prone to moments of sheer ineptitude. All of which might be excused if they were contributing to a devastating attack, but the truth is that United’s full-backs offer unforgivably little going forward. And when the achingly average Andreas Pereira is your No. 10, you need somebody to be anything other than flat.
A year ago this weekend, Manchester United won this same fixture 2-1 with a late goal from substitute Rashford and Jose Mourinho’s team moved into fifth place with 20 points from 11 games. The report in The Observer the next day noted that the winner might be enough to ‘keep Mourinho’s mini-revival just about on track’.
Now, with United on a desperate 13 points from the same number of fixtures and mired in mid-table once again, Solskjaer’s own mini-revival has derailed. They’ve looked at clouds from both sides now and the forecast is for more and more rain.