A lethargic and goalless draw away at Crystal Palace, a team that bang a drum to muster up an atmosphere when their stadium is full, was a bad enough result for Manchester United.
Consider that Leicester, currently in third place, dropped points earlier on Wednesday evening and next up is a clash with rivals Manchester City, who sit 14 points clear at the top of the Premier League table, and that results feels even worse.
It was entirely avoidable and a summary of United’s declining performances since reaching the Premier League’s summit on January 12. The Red Devils have won just three times in their last ten – form that doesn’t even keep you in a division when it gets to the business end of things, let alone winning one.
There’s no sugar coating it; United should, at this point, be a comfortable second place at least, even if challenging for the league title felt a little premature.
But instead, they are now languishing and once again find themselves falling into a muddy top four battle that looks set to go to the death, and holds no guarantees of a Champions League finish.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s decision to start both Nemanja Matic and Fred was immediately headache-inducing upon reading the team sheet an hour before kick off, but perhaps there was some justification with playing away from home and injuries. There was no need, however, for them both to still be on the pitch until 74 minutes in with the game still locked at 0-0.
The duo couldn’t hit a barn door when it came to making a forward pass – knowledge that is hardly new to anybody – and it resulted in Bruno Fernandes dropping deep, leaving the Red Devils with no way to progress through the middle of the pitch. Low and behold, Solskjaer’s substitutes woke United up, too; Daniel James and Scott McTominay both provided a thrust and looked lively, but they were introduced far too late.
Solskjaer is too hesitant when looking to introduce substitutes to break up a tight game, even more so when he has what he feels are his best attackers on the pitch. He only made two of his three available substitutes last night and has opted against using all three changes in draws against Chelsea, West Brom, Everton and Arsenal in 2021. It’s a clear indication of his reluctance to take the risk and upset the flow of the side, but in lifeless draws, there is no flow to upset.
Not only is he too cautious in making all of his available changes, but Solskjaer continues to delay his substitutes which limits the effect they can have on the field. Donny van de Beek has learned all too often this season that you cannot make a proper impact with cameos from the 80th minute and onwards, while the rest of United’s players are also discovering the same fate.
Despite a triple change at half-time in the second leg against Real Sociedad – a Europa League tie which was already won after a 4-0 first leg victory – Solskjaer has only made a change on the hour once since United’s 3-2 win against Liverpool in late January, not counting two instances of a first-half enforced change for injury. It’s taken the Norwegian until at least the 70th minute to make a change against Chelsea, Newcastle and West Ham in the month of February.
Be it down to limitations on Solskjaer’s behalf regarding his in-game management, or a lack of trust in his options from the bench, something has to change for United. A lack of pragmatism to tweak the shape or make a change that could unlock a tight game and force them to play on the edge is beginning to take its toll, and will only continue to hurt them with important games to play.
Players get complacent and burnt out. The gridlock against the Eagles presented Solskjaer with an opportunity to play with one holding midfielder, experiment with players in a new position or throw in Amad Diallo and give his legs a proper stretch to try and effect the game as an unknown quantity to the opposition.
By no means is this calamitous (yet), nor is it reason to suggest he should lose his job, because United have made progress this season. But it is yet another sticking point for Solskjaer that he must learn from, and learn from fast, in order to avoid being dragged into a messy top four scrap or even surrendering the chance to win silverware once again.