Town fell to a predictable yet hugely frustrating Boxing Day defeat at Old Trafford.
With the end of Mourinho and the start of Solskjær’s reign, the inevitable narrative around the so called Theatre of Dreams is one of renewal, swashbuckling football and the restoration of manifest destiny but, in truth, the Red Devils were relatively humdrum for large parts of the game bar a fine piece of skill by Rashford which should have lead to a goal and two strikes by Pogba which did.
The French midfield player appears to have shaken off his sulking post Mourinho, though he will be hard pressed to find a more accommodating defence than the one which allowed him inexplicable space and time yesterday. His first goal, and United’s second, involved decent movement, not tracked, but his second was uninterrupted by any sort of challenge from Town players with Hadergjonaj the main culprit.
How different things could have been had Kongolo put away a straightforward chance created by a Billing long throw after just 10 minutes. Schindler and, remarkably, Pritchard headed the ball across the area and in to the defender’s path only for him to fire over while leaning back.
A goal at that time would have punctured the expectation of Old Trafford and brought back the uncertainties which have plagued their season of underachievement. Perhaps.
Town were not to threaten again until the very end of the first half, but defended competently against a United side which occasionally threatened but failed to seriously test Lössl until, and this is where the frustration comes in, a regulation near post corner saw Hadergjonaj fail to pick up his man. Lindelöf flicked on for the unmarked Matic to tap in a simple opener. Momentary disorganisation cost the visitors heavily.
Buoyed by their lead, the hosts piled on the pressure but were still not creating chances of any real quality until Rashford elegantly nutmegged Zanka and crossed to Dalot for what should have been an easy conversion. The Portuguese put the chance wide and Town were still in the game.
As the first half entered injury time, Pritchard – who played very well throughout – fed Billing in to the area with a deft ball but the young Dane optimistically decided to try to beat De Gea at his near post instead of squaring the ball inside to better placed colleagues. The attempt went weakly wide and Town’s second opportunity passed.
Despite being on the back foot for much of the first half, Town had largely contained United and were, at least, still theoretically capable of a result though few in the away section were counting upon it.
Encouragingly, Town gained quite a grip as the second half progressed and yet another opportunity was spurned as Depoitre chose to cut back in on to his right foot rather than attack the yawning space in front of him when played through. His hesitancy meant Mbenza took the ball away from him and hit it in to a defender.
Earlier, a reasonable ball in to the area was treated to an ineffective overhead kick attempt by the Belgian, but he had a much better effort minutes later when he peeled off from his defender to connect with a rehearsed corner kick by Pritchard and force De Gea in to an excellent, instinctive save.
Kachunga also fired over following a good run by Kongolo.
At this point, Town were the more dominant force and – frustration abounds – it was a little against the run of play when United doubled their lead and ended the contest. Mata surged into the area on the right, sucking in defenders towards him, laid the ball back to Herrera who nudged it on to the unmarked and unchallenged Pogba (again, Hadergjonaj was slow to react, but he wasn’t alone) who swept the ball in.
The killer second came 3 minutes after Depoitre’s saved effort and, as has been the case in most games all season, Town had failed to make the most of the moments in a game which translate in to points. Frustratingly.
A third goal put the rather flattering icing on the cake for the home side. Possibly seduced by the numerous weak efforts by home players throughout the game, Hadergjonaj stood and watched one of the best players in the world calmly pick his spot from 20 yards rather than make a fairly routine challenge which would have blocked the effort. Pogba stood in silent tribute to himself for a good strike, but it was hugely facilitated.
A late consolation by top scorer Zanka – a condemnation in itself – gave the scoreline some deserved respectability, but with just two wins and far too few goals at the halfway point of the season, relegation looks increasingly likely if not inevitable.
In and amongst the gloom – and things are very gloomy – this was a creditable performance against a rejuvenated, if not exactly thrilling, United side who possess players of high quality. Town made them look quite ordinary for long periods but, as usual, were unable to punish the opposition when opportunity knocked. To do so without Mooy and Hogg was commendable but, of course, fruitless.
The lack of points and goals reached a critical point some time ago – failures against bottom half clubs hurt much more than dropping points at Old Trafford – and the next 3 games have become crucial and defining. Gain 7 or 9 points and Town are back in the survival fight; any fewer and hope will virtually disappear.
Possibly the biggest frustration of the whole season is that we are a much better team than last season – yesterday’s display was significantly better than in February – but this is counting for nothing when we consistently fail to take advantage of those moments in games which garner points; something we could do last season at times.
A January striker is essential, though it is far from certain that this will make enough, if any, difference as the pressure of being bottom and possibly adrift weighs heavier and heavier upon fragile shoulders.
On to Fulham and their new shape and better defence.