It was tepid, limp, lethargic, and possibly most damning of all, it was entirely predictable as Manchester United were dispatched back to the North West having been soundly beaten at the London Stadium. Here are five things we learned:
1. There was a lack of quality
There was a moment in the Sky Sports commentary in the second half of this game where it seemed as if analyst Gary Neville had been suddenly and rudely awoken by the morbid reality of the current state of Manchester United. A club that had held the highest of standards and boasted the best players until recent times, had been reduced to a front six of McTominay, Fred, Pereira, Angel Gomes, Lingard and Daniel James. He repeated this line up, aghast, three or four times. He then lamented how a club with the largest resources and possibly biggest fanbase in world football, having a net spend of almost £900 million in the last 10 years, had culminated in this.
The problems at Manchester United are not down to one or two players not coming up to the elite standards expected – the problem is that virtually none of them do. It is not that any of them are notably poor players, but some are average leaning towards mediocre. Compared to players from the Sir Alex Ferguson era, they would at best have been on the fringes, but are now thrust into playing regular first team football for this massive club. Fred is at least mobile and offers some tenacity, but he is error-prone, inconsistent, and lightweight. Jesse Lingard has some attributes in terms of pace and work rate, but his end product is virtually non-existent, and he struggles to impose himself. Andreas Pereira is similar; he has obvious quality but isn’t outstanding at anything.
Scott McTominay has been a regular, starting the last 8 Premier League games. He is a player who might well make it if he continues his promising development. He shows some leadership qualities and has developed physically. However, he is a young player who should be getting gradually introduced into the side alongside established, dominant, mature players – especially in such a crucial area of the field. He is suffering from a lack of quality around him.
Unfortunately, Juan Mata has failed to justify the clamour to start him in the number 10 role. Perhaps it is down to his advancing years – he has a lot of miles on the clock – but he just hasn’t offered anything positive against West Ham or at home to Leicester. He lost possession far too often, and when he did receive the ball in space either his execution of the final ball was off, or he played it far too safe, killing any attacking momentum. Juan Mata at his peak of 7 or 8 years ago may have offered a fulcrum for this side; Mata of 2019 is not the senior pro that will improve or compliment his youthful cohorts.
Injuries certainly account for some of this lack of quality. A side including Shaw, Pogba in particular, Martial and a fit Rashford would be an entirely different proposition. What this game highlighted beyond any doubt is that, although the squad is not particularly light in terms of numbers, it is desperately lacking in terms of quality.
2. West Ham were worthy winners
West Ham were not particularly special, but they are functional and knew their jobs. Solskjaer’s side had one more shot on goal (8 to 9), 53% possession, and more corners (3 to 7). However, other than a great chance for Juan Mata early in the second half when the side looked briefly motivated, they created little.
Other results this season have been disappointing, but United could at least point to the fact they dominated proceedings and deserved more against Wolves, Crystal Palace and Southampton. The performance at West Ham was flat from the start. Given that only two players had started against Astana, the champions of Kazakhstan no less, there was no excuse for lethargy. Players on that field would have been expected to be doing their utmost to claim a regular spot in the side. Exceeding the drive and desire of your opposition is the bare minimum to start from, regardless of talent and quality. That basic expectation was not met. Once again, the lack of leaders who champion the required standards at a club as big as Manchester United has been highlighted. The insatiable and ruthless desire that used to be an identity of Sir Alex’s sides has long since gone. This is no longer a side to be feared, in fact mid-ranking sides relish the prospect of going toe-to-toe with a side that has fragile confidence and sporadic work ethic.
In his most recent book on leadership, Ferguson wrote: “For me, drive means a combination of a willingness to work hard, emotional fortitude, enormous powers of concentration and a refusal to admit defeat”. United will be stronger when their absentees return from injury, but this ‘drive’ is completely lacking from the current playing staff. There are promising young players who offer enthusiasm and willingness – Daniel James has been a breath of fresh air – but there is a lack of leaders. Players who command respect and raise performance levels of those around them are a vital commodity, and it may take some significant investment to recruit some of this vacant characteristic.
3. Nemanja Matic is finished
This wasn’t something that was learned at West Ham, it has been appallingly obvious for at least 18 months. Put a fork in him, he’s done. The side is far worse for his presence. He is slow, ponderous, frequently concedes possession, and kills any fluency in attacks. He contributes nothing in defence and is getting physically dominated by smaller opponents. At this point in his career, he would struggle to get a game in the Vincent Kompany testimonial.
4. It is important to retain some perspective
This was a really poor performance and becoming far too familiar. With it being Manchester United, the weeping and gnashing of teeth following a defeat is always hyperbolic, not least from those closely associated with the club.
In the Sky studio, Roy Keane was asked for his thoughts on the game. “I was shocked and saddened by how bad they were. They were lacklustre, no quality, lack of desire, lack of leaders, lack of characters. It’s a long way back for United, but scary how far they’ve fallen”. Jose Mourinho alongside him stated “I can’t find any positives”, and Gary Neville reflected “When this United team get poked and prodded, they are not strong enough to cope with it”.
Solskjaer, though, adopted a different outlook: “I’m disappointed we didn’t win today, but apart from that I’m being very positive. I’ve said many times that there will be highs and lows. We’ve had some highs along the way, today we just have to accept we got no points and look forward to next week”.
Keane also commented “You can’t be saying ‘We’ve got a two to three-year plan’. That’s nonsense as well. You’ve got to win football matches consistently at big clubs”. Of course, he’s right, but expectations and standards have changed. The truth, as with most things in life, lies somewhere in the middle. The reality is that fans knew this United side is way off the pace in terms of a title challenge. What the club needs to demonstrate now is progression, and the fact that there actually is a discernible plan. Solskjaer has some time available that probably hasn’t been afforded to previous managers. There is a widely held realisation that this has become a substantial re-building job. The scattergun approach of the last six seasons, switching between styles and managers, and recruiting expensive mercenaries has got to stop.
This is a young side who will be understandably inconsistent. Solskjaer has inherited a squad filled with players who are not good enough, and has at least begun to clear out the players, and importantly characters, that he did not want. There are many more who need to go, and who need to be replaced by players of true class, substance and drive. Consistency in the management and structures of the club are vital if improvement is to be delivered on the pitch. Whether the current structures can deliver that would need another very lengthy debate, and that’s before even starting on the ownership.
5. The midfield needs Pogba
At this point, a good argument could be made that the flamboyant Frenchman is the most divisive player in the history of the club. Even his most ardent critics would be hard pushed to argue that Manchester United are not a far, far poorer side in Pogba’s absence. You can question his attitude and his commitment to the club, and they are perfectly fair question marks that surround him. The fact is, though, he is the only midfield player of proven pedigree and world-class ability in the squad.
He can be incredibly frustrating, but he is vital to any success this side can achieve this season. He is the only midfield player capable of dictating the play, demanding the ball, and leading the side. He has on occasions flattered to deceive, but there is no-one in this squad who can come close to his output in terms of goals, assists, key passes or touches per game. His team-mates look to him for inspiration, to a level where they can be over-reliant.
With the pace that can be available with a fit Rashford, Martial and Daniel James, Pogba can link in with incisive passes, and third man runs that Pereira, McTominay and Fred can’t rival. The midfield against West Ham was pedestrian, even moribund. There was little variety, and certainly no flair or imagination. Pogba improves this picture drastically, although the point remains that he requires far more in terms of supporting performers.
Following what will no doubt be a youthful and experimental side that will take the field midweek in the Carabao Cup, the side return to Premier League action on Monday evening at home to Arsenal. After such a bleak outing against the frustratingly happy Hammers, it is entirely likely that this fragile group will manage to deliver a performance and a result against their similarly inept top six rivals.