Date published: Thursday 3rd October 2019 9:05
After the mediocrity of Monday night, United went to the Netherlands on Thursday and offered up yet more football mogadon. At least the draw with Arsenal offered some intrigue if only as a yardstick for how far both clubs have fallen. This goalless, lifeless stalemate with AZ Alkmaar lacked even that perverse charm.
The Group L draw simply reinforced what we already knew: Solskjaer’s United lack the guile, imagination and penetration of a side supposedly intent on returning to the Champions League in the not-too-distant future. And more worryingly, the manager clearly knows no quick cure for their attacking ills.
Tonight’s attempted remedy: Daniel James as a centre-forward. The more sh*t Solskjaer throws, the less sticky it gets.
Using James as the attack’s focal point was a Hail Mary when Solskjaer threw the winger through the middle as a mid-game stab-in-the-dark against Arsenal but opting to start with such a shape in The Hague showed that the manager is desperate enough to try anything to rouse a team that hasn’t scored more than a single goal in any game for almost two months.
Even a shot on target was too much to ask tonight. Although Solskjaer quickly ditched the James experiment, the fact it was conducted in the first place remains an indictment of the manager. It wasn’t just James; for half an hour, the front four were all out of position.
10 – Manchester United have failed to win any of their last 10 away matches across all competitions (D4 L6) – they last went on a longer winless run on the road between February and September 1989 (run of 11). Worrying. pic.twitter.com/doznd0WEp9
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 3, 2019
With James through the middle, Mason Greenwood, United’s ‘most natural finisher’, was shunted to the wing, as was Angel Gomes who would have been better suited to the central position in which Juan Mata toiled. The Spaniard’s best performances for United of late have come from the right but playing off James, Mata lacked the burst to deceive defenders in tight spaces.
Once James and Greenwood swapped, the pair combined for United’s best opening of the first half but on this occasion, the 18-year-old’s finishing was not as ruthless as Solskjaer might have expected, with ex-Villa defender Ron Vlaar, 34, able to recover upon the only occasion he was flustered by United’s forwards.
Apparently desperate to prove that he hasn’t run out of ideas, Solskjaer made multiple tweaks in the second half. Marcus Rashford replaced James with the England striker going to left wing before Jesse Lingard followed off the bench, sending Rashford to centre-forward after Greenwood was hooked. Rashford should have had a penalty and Lingard was off target with United’s best – and only – second-half opening before his hamstring went.
Amid the constant chopping and changing, United’s young players looked dazed and confused. Gomes, like Tatith Chong, is struggling to seize his first-team opportunities, while Greenwood was never given chance to settle in any role before being shifted yet again.
If youth is legitimately used as their excuse, rustiness might be offered as mitigation by the more experienced names in Solskjaer’s XI. Nemanja Matic certainly isn’t up to match speed and the fear is that never again will he be. Next to him was Fred, who can run but he can’t pass. His performance against Rochdale drew comparisons with some of the worst-ever individual displays in a United shirt. This got even worse with every stray ball that found touch.
Neither Fred nor Matic would feature in Solskjaer’s first XI when Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay are available, but there are no attackers waiting in the wings to invigorate United’s current forward line, which has mustered up only 18 goals in 20 matches since Solskjaer was appointed as permanent boss.
The manager must plod on until January and for the rest of the season with players he claims to still believe in. But this selections and the constant changes tell a very different story.