Theatre of silence and sighs

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In 1968, the whole country was behind Manchester United’s quest for the European Cup, with overwhelming sentiment derived from the Munich Air Disaster.

The goodwill disappeared long ago but not for the victims and survivors of that tragedy and a perfectly observed minutes’ silence paid poignant homage before Town’s first visit since 1972 began.

The task in front of the visitors was huge.

In poor form which has seen 4 straight league defeats in 2018 with only one goal scored from precious few opportunities and survival looking increasingly unlikely as the weeks pass, a visit to the second placed side boosted by the signing of Alexis Sanchez promised little respite.

Reverting to a back 4, with Smith and Kongolo at full back and Hadergjonaj pushed in to a midfield role that seemed to rather suit him, Wagner’s experimentation continued – thankfully, the pairing of Mounié and Depoitre seems to have been consigned to the drawing room.

Mooy, who has looked bafflingly jaded for far too long, was demoted to the bench and Van La Parra and Quaner restored.

An encouraging first half saw Town restrict United to one decent effort well saved by Lössl and one break from a rare Town attack which ended with the Dane saving at the feet of Lingard.

Town preserved their goal at the expense of both possession and attacking intent though they did construct one or two possibilities for opportunities down the right with Quaner, Hadergjonaj and Smith combining.

Those flurries of excitement were rare, however, and most of the visitors’ energy was expended in trying to thwart their opponents’ attempts to play through the lines.

Using fair means and foul, the objective was achieved despite the incessant prompting of Sanchez. The Chilean is supremely elusive, always on the move and has that perfect centre of gravity which draws opponents in to challenges and fouls. Theatrical as he is, and his constant sense of injustice is annoying, he is exceptionally difficult to counter and Town controlled him reasonably well for 45 minutes.

In the absence of any genuine threat emanating from their team, the visiting support was kept animated by a referee seemingly bent on handing the home side momentum and a linesman who failed to spot clear offsides from 3 free kicks from the right.

The most outrage was reserved for Morinho’s instruction to his players not to return the ball to Town after they had put it out for an injured United man.

In truth, United were getting decisions because they monopolised possession of the ball, were often a little too quick for the defenders and Town’s timing of challenges went awry at times.

It could hardly have been the crowd influencing decisions – like at Liverpool, Arsenal and Everton, the atmosphere was appalling and sterile.

Town also got away with a crude challenge on McTominay on the edge of the box, and the referee could hardly be blamed for the visitors giving up possession too easily at times and facilitating the home side’s dominance.

Still, a scoreless half was just reward for commitment and towards the end of it, Town finally escaped the tight grip established from the off by United and mounted some offensive resistance.

Despite these slivers of encouragement, there remained an air of inevitability about a game where, frankly and unsurprisingly, the teams were not only mismatched but United’s incredible bench would only exacerbate the inequality.

Against high quality opposition, however frustrated they can become, inevitable errors will eventually be punished and so it proved in a largely disappointing second half.

Intense early pressure from United was defended very well with last ditch tackles and blocks keeping an increasingly hungry beast at bay, but sloppy play halfway inside Town’s half saw Matic capitalize and feed Mata to supply the otherwise well marshalled Lukaku a perfect cross for the Belgian to crash home.

The game was up, the injured Schindler was withdrawn for Hefele and the inevitability of defeat was painfully obvious.

Hefele felled Sanchez in the box with 20 minutes to go and while the Chilean’s poor penalty was saved by Lössl, he opened his United account with the rebound.

With the result confirmed, not that there had been much doubt once United had taken the lead, Morinho took the opportunity of blooding some hopefuls as Pogba, Rashford and Martial were introduced.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of a predictable defeat was the final 20 minutes.

With United adopting something of a showboating mentality, Town were afforded some possession from which they created precisely nothing.

Largely instigated by the lively Hadergjonaj, two promising breaks down the right were let down by poor balls in to the box, Ince messed up a good ball from the Swiss with poor control and momentum was lost on other occasions.

Town’s increased presence in the United half also created good opportunities for United on the break. These were defended well, if somewhat desperately and, at least, a drubbing was avoided.

However good the opposition, it remains deflating when your team fails to trouble the keeper, basic skills are executed carelessly and their threat is this feeble.

Credit should be extended to a stoic defence in which Kongolo was outstanding and those at the back must feel frustrated that their efforts are not built upon by those further forward.

The whole team did work hard to contain a vastly superior outfit – Depoitre’s thankless front running with stitches in a foot injury at half time a case in point – but a fifth straight defeat was fully merited.

With hopes pinned on Wagner using the last two hugely difficult games as preparation for the crucial, and winnable, series of encounters ahead, Town’s drop in to the relegation zone for the first time still feels ominous.

The holding back of Pritchard – other than his less than fruitful appearance at Stoke – is a little mysterious but, hopefully, a ploy to add his creativity in games where it could be effective.

Williams could still add something different to a midfield desperately lacking Mooy’s influence (he was slightly better in this game after a very poor first 5 minutes, but nowhere near the standards he has set himself), and the excellent Kongolo has a lot to add if the team as a whole can climb out of their current rut.

Town desperately need to recapture their identity against a dangerous and resurgent Bournemouth next week.

Finally, off the pitch, Town’s support totally dominated a horribly quiet Old Trafford crowd. It is to be hoped – and there is strong justification for that hope -the JSS assembly is as supportive of a struggling team next Saturday.

 

(I won’t be put to the supporting test as Bournemouth is the one League game I’m missing – next report, West Brom, unless I do a TV based one – cos I’m going here and hurling myself off mountains (well, more like gliding gently down not so challenging stuff);

 

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