If there is a match official dear to Manchester United supporters’ hearts since Howard Webb’s retirement, it isn’t Mike Dean. The Premier League’s only red card centurion, who reached the milestone at former United captain Ashley Young’s expense in April 2019 during the league leg of a pair of 2-1 defeats to Wolves at Molineux in that campaign, would be taking far more stick today had his decision to award a penalty for Eric Bailly’s handball proved the turning point in the Saturday match for Bournemouth. It did not. Rather, it revealed a maturation in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s squad that few anticipated in the season’s early doors. In that respect, Dean’s decision was a boon to the club.
He didn’t need to make the call even though Dominic Solanke, in the process of closing Bailly down, immediately turned and indicated the ball had gone off the defender’s bicep. Calling matches to the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit can be unhealthy for the game. In this case, Nemanja Matic’s backpass dipped and curled unexpectedly, like a Bruno Fernandes free kick, betraying Bailly in midair. Still, no Bournemouth player, not even Soilanke who was closest, could have reached the ball before it rolled out of bounds or into the covering David de Gea’s arms, not whether it made contact with the Ivorian’s bicep or shoulder. In other words, the gaffe did not interfere with a scoring opportunity, the act for which a penalty is intended to compensate.
Realising that, Dean could have exercised a little discretion without much controversy. It would have taken broadcasters at least the three minutes VAR required to determine the incident was a possible penalty. In that time, the Cherries would have happily taken the corner Matic and Bailly had given, their only likely argument being they’d rather take a free kick from just outside the box, at the point where Bailly jumped. They certainly weren’t swarming Dean to demand anything more.
Nevertheless, like the smallest boy in the orphanage gifted a Ferrari on his birthday, Josh King dispatched the penalty to bring Eddie Howe’s side within a goal. Despite my personal disgust at Dean awarding such a ridiculous penalty and Bailly for playing Matic’s ball like a Hackney Marshes punter whose kit was hopelessly overmatched in covering his pot-belly, my immediate response was to the squad as a whole and consisted of two words. “Bury them.”
Given their reaction to the Cherries’ opening goal, it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that they set about that very task immediately. Of course, Arnaut Danjuma’s strike on a counter-attack shortly thereafter may have truly tested United’s resolve had the winger not been offside. Yet, the close call didn’t shrink United’s violets, motivate them to close ranks, play more cautiously and thereby allow Bournemouth to grow further into the game.
Rather, it drove the Reds to exert even greater pressure, with Mason Greenwood’s second strike, this time taken with his supposedly weaker right foot while angling away from goal, restoring a two-goal advantage. Like Kate Moss and Heidi Klum on a Paris runway, that beauty was soon followed by another. Bruno’s free kick gave Aaron Ramsdale no chance but not before sailing over Nemanja Matic’s head, hopefully impressing on the Serbian to pick his spots more judiciously when putting a little swerve on his deliveries.
The tally could have been six but Marcus Rashford turned out to be the same half-step offside as Danjuma earlier.
The point is, Solskjaer’s United are no longer the hermit crabs they were under Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho. This side won’t go into a shell after taking a lead. They no longer fear mistakes in the manner the Dutchman and Portuguese’s conditioning evoked. Now, they’re bulls in a china shop, intent on doing far more damage than their opponents, relentlessly asserting their superiority.
Whether they can run rampant for the remainder of the season is yet to be seen. Regardless, United demonstrated against a side that attempted to clog the middle of the pitch that it is they who will dictate terms, not opponents and certainly not match officials. That can only bode well for coming seasons.