Sunday’s match against Arsenal might not have ended with the result that Manchester United wanted. Following up the win against Paris Saint-Germain with another big result with a shoestring squad turned out to be a step too far.
The defeat leaves United in fifth, two points behind Arsenal, but here are five things we learned from the game.
Sometimes the luck just turns
A shot with unexpected swerve and a soft penalty are a tough way to lose a game. At the other end, Romelu Lukaku’s miss inside ten minutes would have bounced into the roof of the net if it had hit him just a millimetre further up his boot.
United benefited from some good fortune in Paris on Wednesday, so perhaps it was inevitable that some of it would go in the other direction.
“You cannot say it was a game we deserved to lose,” Solskjaer said. “We created chances, that’s the thing. We created five big chances, we hit the woodwork twice.
“We have won games we have not deserved to win and today we lost a game we did not deserve to lose.”
Solskjaer a master of using what’s available
You get the feeling that, when Solskjaer first arrived at United, he must’ve watched a lot of Blue Peter and spent his downtime making a Thunderbirds Tracy Island out of shoeboxes and sticky-back plastic.
Most managers would try and stick with a trusted formation in an injury crisis, with trusted players in trusted positions.
Like in Paris, though, Solskjaer has put players in roles that might be considered out of position, but it’s been the best thing for the team.
Paul Pogba on the left side of a midfield, tucking inside when Luke Shaw gets forward; Diogo Dalot on the right, occasionally moving back to right wing-back with Ashley Young becoming a right-sided centre-back. These aren’t things many managers would do.
The Norwegian deserves a lot of respect for seeing players as more than just the position that they’ve always played, and working out what skills they have that can be useful in different areas of the pitch.
Perhaps fatigue is taking its toll on him, but Marcus Rashford didn’t look at the races against Arsenal.
He cut a frustrated figure during much of the game, struggling to get into positions where he could finish a chance if it came his way. Although he had four shots in the match, two of them were from distance and only one hit the target.
He did, however, set up one of the best chances of the match when he slid a great pass in for Lukaku which the Belgian couldn’t manage to finish off.
Rashford’s creative abilities are an underrated quality of his, and there’s some solace at least in the fact that he can still come up with some quality when he’s clearly a bit off the pace.
Shaw – he won’t let you down
Although Jose Mourinho’s treatment of him often seemed to go too far, it’s true that Luke Shaw has struggled during his time at United. However, this season he’s found his feet.
He made five tackles and an interception against Arsenal, significantly limiting the joy that the Gunners were able to get down his side of the pitch.
With his defensive skill and athleticism improving, it gives him more chance to get up the pitch and provide balls like his superb cross for Lukaku’s chance. It’s easy to forget that he’s still just 23 as well, and that leaves him with plenty more room to grow even further.
Time for some passing patterns
The injuries, fixture congestion, and shuffling of formations mean that some things have probably been squeezed out of the training schedule.
On Sunday, United continually struggled to play through or around Arsenal’s high pressing. Luke Shaw’s fantastic cross for Romelu Lukaku was a notable example of when they did manage it.
Given that Mesut Ozil was one of the front three, it shouldn’t have been too difficult to crack the code, but players didn’t seem to know how to make themselves available for one another.
A lack of chemistry is probably part of it, but there didn’t seem to be many set patterns of play that United could try in order to get around Arsenal. Unable to get through or around the first line of the press, the United’s defenders usually had to kick it long, where the Gunners’ back five could smother any danger easily.
Like we’ve said, it’s understandable, but with no game this midweek, perhaps this is something that Solskjaer will be doing some work on the training ground on.
*odds subject to change
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by Tom Bodell