Just when you thought 2021 couldn’t get any stranger, Manchester United have outdone themselves by beating champions Liverpool and then losing to rock-bottom Sheffield United inside four days.
A side with one win all season and a team threatened by the spectre of the drop before the first month of the year is out. How on earth do you manage that? We knock Liverpool out of the FA Cup and go six clear of them in the league before the players serve up probably the worst performance under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer against a side with five points from 20 games. It beggars belief.
There can be no denying the great strides made by Solskjaer’s United this season, a rise to the Premier League pinnacle to mount an unexpected challenge for the title amid belief and excitement that 21 is coming.
But this was a massive reality check and a huge jolt back down to earth. I could semi-understand the selection from the manager – this game coming as it did sandwiched between two huge games against the Scousers and an in-form Arsenal. In the wake of a frantic fixture schedule, if there was a game to rotate then this was surely it. Solskjaer has worked a minor miracle to get this team into contention and remember how far we’ve come. But some of his decisions were baffling.
An argument could be had that any side he selected should have been good enough to beat this opposition, but how Anthony Martial completed 90 minutes is beyond me. The Frenchman is mercurial and enigmatic at the best of times but flopped spectacularly here, so much so that you to remind yourself he was playing. Nemanja Matic was static and anonymous, Marcus Rashford was off the boil and David de Gea found wanting for both of Sheffield’s goals. Edinson Cavani should have come on at the interval, replacing Martial and not Mason Greenwood, whilst the introductions of Donny van de Beek and Luke Shaw – whose importance was only highlighted in absentia – came far too late.
I had to rub my eyes to believe what I was seeing – as bad as referee Peter Bankes performance was, United’s ‘defending’ for the second goal was a hundred times worse.
No pressure on the ball, no organisation, no desire or commitment to lunge in and make that tackle – everything that we’ve seen for our side over the past few weeks was bizarrely conspicuous by absence.
Regardless of the fact Sheffield’s opener should not have stood after Billy Sharp all but straight-up assaulted De Gea, and then ruled out Martial’s goal for minimal contact, that should not detract from a night that hit home, hard, just how far United have to go.