Turning corners has trapped Man United in an infernal maze

Date published: Sunday 15th December 2019 3:59

‘Have Manchester United turned a corner with Ole at the wheel?’ reads the headline to an article on the BBC website. It is dated December 9.

‘The moment that showed Manchester United might be starting to turn a corner’ the Manchester Evening News teased on November 15.

‘Have Manchester United turned a corner?’ asked Sky Sports on October 31.

‘Ashley Young insists Man Utd are ‘very close’ to turning corner under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’ said the Daily Mirror on September 15.

That is just a snapshot of the headlines that encapsulate Manchester United in 2019: a team turning so many corners so often that they can only be trapped in an infernal maze.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, to his credit, has identified the problem. “If you beat Man City, like we did, Alkmaar. After that, Everton. Under Sir Alex, we had to earn the right to win every game and had the feeling we would. That is how it is supposed to be at Man United.

“We need to keep our identity – intensity, aggression, urgency and quality – against every team,” he continued. “We haven’t done that in games we are expected to win.”

But there is a difference between diagnosis and treatment. Solskjaer is qualified enough as a doctor to notice the ailment; he is yet to show he is adept or experienced enough to remedy it.

This, a home draw from behind against Everton, can be framed one of two ways. The result in isolation can only be disappointing and predictable: United squandering chances, dominating possession and tripping over their own shoelaces.

But the context and circumstance is a little more generous. United did not surrender; they fought, scrapped, maintained their course and eventually broke through.

It was Mason Greenwood who scored the equaliser and earned the point with a fine finish. But United’s response to Victor Lindelof’s own goal was an improvement. They had nine shots before Everton had their next. Luke Shaw and Daniel James both tested a presumably post-rave Jordan Pickford.

A first Ferguson win at Old Trafford since May 2013 was thus prevented. But it is tough to view this result as anything other than United struggling to break down a resolute defence while being given most of the ball, and having to battle for a draw against a team in interim management. One in the bottom half, no less, meaning they now have one-third of the points Liverpool do from such games.

“A glance at our next few fixtures and the Premier League table may have a few fans drooling because, with the exception of Everton, we have a run of matches against teams from the bottom half of the table,” Ferguson told United Review in January 2013, naming the Toffees in one of those delightful quirks of fate.

“Some might feel this presents us with an opportunity to turn the screw and put our championship rivals under big pressure,” he added. “But let’s not fool ourselves into believing that we are now entering a phase against the lower teams that will present us with easy pickings. That would be a rubbish attitude and if we slip into that kind of attitude I can’t think of an easier way to blunt our challenge, because there just aren’t any easy games in this league of ours.

“On their day, teams can beat anyone,” the Scot pointed out, and United themselves have proved that this season with victories over the teams in 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th, while forcing the side in 1st to drop their only points of the season.

So a draw with the outfit in 16th can only really be a step back, albeit a slightly smaller one than we have become accustomed to after great strides forward.

United at least avoided a repeat of April’s 4-0 defeat at Goodison Park. Solskjaer described “that game at Everton” as “the biggest eye-opener” of his nascent reign on Friday. Progress has been made since then, but only from a remarkable low point. Only a fool would feel United have turned a corner when it seems just as likely that they have backed themselves into one.

Matt Stead

 

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