And just like that, Manchester United’s epic Premier League title charge is over.
After Manchester City moved to the top of the table with a win over West Brom, it was up to United to reclaim top spot with a home game against 20th-place Sheffield United.
Of all the games United could lose to derail an unexpected title load, he surely wasn’t going to be home for the worst team in the league this season. Except of course it was, because that’s what the Red Devils do.
Resilient and incredibly organized Blades dug and stole two ramshackle goals to secure their first victory at Old Trafford since December 1973, and only their second of the current season.
For the Red Devils, however, the loss was humiliating and deserved. United is by no means a train wreck; They’re not far from competing for the league’s top spot, but the loss to Chris Wilder’s side was a much-needed reality check and highlighted a number of key weaknesses they need to address if they are want to progress.
And it has to start from the back.
Of course, there were calls for a foul on David de Gea in Sheffield United’s opening goal, when Kean Bryan nodded past him from the corner. But let’s be honest, crosses and turns in defense have been the Spaniard’s kryptonite since joining United in 2011, and his lack of improvement in the field is disappointing to say the least.
It is not only De Gea at fault, however. Harry Maguire is caught on the wrong side as Axel Tuanzebe feels his head hurts to clear the ball. At no point did a Manchester United player move De Gea’s two men who were pushing him back.
It was the start of a bad night for both center-backs. Maguire, for all his ability to move the ball forward, still works way too inconsistently from the back. And as the captain of a team chasing a league in the open season, there is simply no room for his pitfall crashes, especially at the price he has cost. Tuanzebe also suffered a poor comeback in the XI, as neither Alex Telles nor Aaron Wan-Bissaka looked convincing.
United are in desperate need of another center-back, which shouldn’t be the case considering the Red Devils have spent over £ 200million on defenders since Eric Bailly’s arrival in 2016. A world-class center-half to sit alongside Maguire – let’s face it, he’s not going anywhere – and a right-back to compete with Wan-Bissaka would consolidate a rocky back line, as would better defensive training.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side have conceded 36 league goals in their 2019/20 campaign, but have already conceded 27 this season and have 18 more games to play. Demba Ba’s goal for Istanbul Basaksehir in the Champions League in November was bad enough already, so for these defensive incidents to continue it is simply impossible to continue. Solskjaer has proven that he can learn from his shortcomings; Now is the time for him to take action against his defense on the training ground and come away with improved recruiting in the future once the foundations are down.
It was dismal for United against the Blades, however, which seems to be the case when Bruno Fernandes isn’t crawling on all fours. The 26-year-old was nowhere near living up to his usual, hard-hitting personality, and other fellow attackers were not up to the task to pull him to the top. This is the problem United face; for as much attacking talent as they have, there is an abundant lack of accountability among the cohort.
“Character” is an overused cliché in football these days, but for good reason. Winning doesn’t come without being able to dig deep and power through games when they get a little tough, but Fernandes feels like the only one constantly baring that trait at United. If Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood are to show off the talent they possess and the manager’s faith, they need to fight more in close and wary matches and take some of the pressure off Fernandes.
A signing would tone that down again, but in truth there is enough talent for United to use without rushing into the transfer market when the going gets tough – in Solskjaer’s eyes, at least.
In such an open season, a lot can change. We’ve already seen Liverpool and Tottenham squander title charges, and Arsenal and Chelsea fight relegation. United are down after a disappointing result, but they haven’t come out. Solskjaer needs a big reaction from his men when they visit Arsenal.