Just what the f*** are we supposed to make of this Manchester United team?
We know Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side veer between broken and brilliant, sometimes on a thrice-weekly basis. But the win at West Ham demonstrated contrasts even more extreme and rapid than those that have gone before.
For an hour, United were appallingly bad. They displayed the level of wretchedness that makes you wonder if the players were doing it on purpose for their own ends.
Then, for the fifth time in five Premier League away games this season, United turned it around. On each road trip they have dug themselves out of their hole but at the London Stadium, they looked dead and buried in a concrete tomb, even despite the slender scoreline. Yet, once again, Solskjaer’s men rose to the challenge and, somehow, finished a game in which they could have been 5-0 down as comfortable 3-1 winners.
The victory, their ninth consecutive away triumph, takes United into fourth place after ten games, level with Chelsea before the Blues kick off their 11th, and two points off Liverpool and Tottenham. In the Champions League, they need a point from their final group game to qualify from a tricky group.
Looking at those bare facts alone, the reasonable conclusion would be that Solskjaer and United are ticking along very nicely. But the context cannot be ignored.
In every aspect of the Red Devils’ performance there are red flags. The first hour against the Hammers was unspeakably bad and it follows similarly awful spells from the individuals and units under Solskjaer’s watch. He can put a positive spin on their penchant for a comeback by emphasising the perceived spirit such recoveries require, but this cannot be a sustainable route to the success and silverware that has eluded United in recent years. Can it?
One thing that is clearly evident about this United side is just how reliant they are on Bruno Fernandes.
Solskjaer wanted to keep his talisman in reserve ahead of the trip to Germany on Tuesday – the same applied to Marcus Rashford – but having taken plenty of deserved stick for not making a change in midweek against PSG, the manager was more decisive at half-time in east London. Donny van de Beek and Edinson Cavani were the pair to make way, but Solskjaer could justifiably have hooked any of his first-half flops.
The question of how vast Fernandes’ influence is hasn’t required an answer while the Portuguese has turned out in every game but one for which he has been available since he joined the club back in January. The first half tonight gave us an insight into what a Fernandes-less United might look like and for Solskjaer, it was a horrifying revelation.
even more exaggerated today. Before he came on Man Utd had 3 shots, all from range. Then after half-time they had 12 – 8 of them set up by Fernandes, including one goal, and he played the pre-assist for the other two goals
— Michael Cox (@Zonal_Marking) December 5, 2020
United missed not just his technical gifts, but the driving force Fernandes provides as one of the few players in this squad not satisfied with doing just enough. If he can stay fit and United can keep him satisfied, Fernandes could become one of the greats at Old Trafford. Should he be struck down by injury or if he ever decides that he’s sick of this sh*t, then United supporters best get used to the kind of limp, lifeless performances offered by Fernandes’ team-mates before he and Rashford came to their aid.
Of course, Fernandes is not the only Red Devil capable of individual brilliance. Their three goals came from sublime pieces of skill from all three scorers and in the case of the third, courtesy too of Juan Mata’s perfectly-weighted pass.
That’s the infuriating dichotomy with this United side. We know what Paul Pogba, Mason Greenwood, Anthony Martial and numerous other individuals are capable of. But the periods between those moments are almost always too long and the lean spells contrast far too greatly with the flickers of genius.
United could better absorb the effects of such individual inconsistency with structure as a unit and a coherent tactical plan. But in defence and attack, there are few clear patterns or routines. The subsequent disarray tends to land United in the sh*t though thankfully for Solskjaer, individuals – usually Fernandes – have been able to drag them out of it.
Even during a season in which football has frequently flummoxed us all, when Solskjaer reckons points will be more evenly spread among the title contenders, it remains incomprehensible that United’s sublime best could often enough compensate for their pitiful worst to sustain a push for silverware.