All teams have off days. No side, no matter how great or how much money has been spent on it, plays to its maximum every week. A draw at Southampton is no disaster, but what must concern Manchester United was the manner of the points dropped last Sunday. It all felt very familiar.
They should beat Wolves on Sunday afternoon. United have better players and that is often enough. But already there is doubt and pressure: champions rarely drop more than 20 points over a season these days and already United have squandered one-tenth of that. Drop more at Molineux and the thought of a realistic title bid would seem fanciful.
Perhaps that’s academic; perhaps as Gary Neville said on Monday Night Football, there should be no expectation on United to win the Premier League this season. To which the response must be: why not?
United finished second last season and have added Jadon Sancho, Raphaël Varane and now Cristiano Ronaldo. Their net spend is greater than that of any other Premier League club and they may yet add another midfielder this window. Over the past five seasons United have spent a net £500m.
There is a huge amount wrong with United under the Glazers. Vast sums leave the club in dividends and interest repayments that are only necessary because of the leveraged nature of the buy-out. There has been a lack of investment in the upkeep of the stadium; fan, media and corporate facilities; and in the academy and recruitment. But spending on players has been fairly consistent and, according to the latest available figures (2019-20), United have the third-highest wage bill in the Premier League.
If Ole Gunnar Solskjær has any influence over transfer policy (and the Donny van de Beek situation does cast doubt on that), after two and a half years and 153 games in the job, this surely is close to the squad he wants.
That is not to say United should win the league: Manchester City and Chelsea have squads of exceptional depth and quality and Liverpool a highly talented but smaller squad. But it is to say they have at least to make a proper challenge this season and not get knocked out of the Champions League in the group stage. That will mean playing with rather more cohesion than they did at St Mary’s.
The problem was the same as it always is for United. On the break, they have the pace and ability to beat the very best, plenty of individuals who can turns games with a moment of improvisation, skill or predatory genius.
Once they go ahead, they are hard to combat because they are so good on the counter. But last season, they dropped points against Crystal Palace (twice), West Brom, Fulham, Everton and Arsenal. Leicester beat them in the league and the FA Cup. Five clubs picked up more points than them at home.
When it went wrong in games they would probably expect to win, it tended to be against well-organised opponents who disrupted them in midfield.
The Europa League final against Villarreal was a classic example: United dominant in possession but lacking the cohesion to convert it into sustained pressure or chances. Two further meetings with them in the Champions League group stage will be a useful measure of how far United have progressed, of whether they are now able to produce the cohesive attacking patterns necessary at the highest level in the modern game.
That is why the Southampton game is of such concern. There has been much discussion about whether Solskjær will continue to play two holding midfielders once Varane is bedded in, but the issue is more about who those players are and what their roles will be. Having additional cover at the back of midfield is not necessarily a defensive move: a solid base can liberate those further forward.
At St Mary’s, Fred and Nemanja Matic often ended up occupying the same space. They were very narrow, which made it relatively easy for Southampton’s press to block them in, particularly given how much more comfortable United are playing out down their left, through Luke Shaw, than down the right, through Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Fred ended up with a pass completion rate of 75%, with Matic not much better at 76.1%.
The lack of options is seen in the fact that the most common pass United played in the game was one of the centre-backs to the other – a situation not helped by David de Gea’s lack of confidence with the ball at his feet.
The result was a stodginess wholly removed from the game against Leeds the previous week, with Anthony Martial so isolated he touched the ball 13 times in his 58 minutes on the pitch.
There is an obvious question of why Martial started at centre-forward when Greenwood had been so effective the previous week, not only in terms of his own game but also in creating space for Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes: United have had no midweek fixtures, there’s an international break coming up and Edinson Cavani will return soon, so rotation seems unnecessary. But United’s failure was also more fundamental.
When it goes wrong, this is how it goes wrong for them – with an inability to find the patterns that will penetrate an opposing midfield and defence. It is hard to see how Ronaldo will help with that.
Wolves are a challenge: in eight games against them under Nuno Espírito Santo, Solskjær’s United scored seven goals. The higher line Wolves play under Bruno Lage may suit United, but the memory of how to thwart them remains.
While individuals make a difference – Matic looked off the pace last Sunday, Fred is never more dangerous than when his confidence is up, Pogba rarely sustains a run of good form – the more fundamental issue is one of coaching.
Increasingly at elite level, it is the ability to organise an attack that separates the very best from the rest. With the squad he now has, there can be no more excuses. This season is a test of whether Solskjær is up to the job.