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Manchester United's problems evident against Sheffield United
Sheffield United's late equaliser against Manchester United was no more than they deserved as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side turned in a dreadful performance at Bramall Lane, writes Adam Bate
Last Updated: 25/11/19 1:12pm
After the humbling first half came the comeback. After the comeback came the twist. Ultimately, Manchester United’s 3-3 draw at Sheffield United was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's reign in a nutshell. The moments of promise provided by the young academy graduates were cancelled out by an overwhelming sense of a team struggling to find its way.
When it was all over, Manchester United were left in ninth place in the Premier League table. Level on points with Jose Mourinho's Tottenham but below an Arsenal team whose own manager is under scrutiny. Below Wolves. Below Burnley. Remarkably, it is Chris Wilder's Blades who are the top United in the Premier League going into December.
It is Manchester United's worst start to a Premier League season.
Five wins in their previous six games had brought renewed optimism but that sequence included two games against Partizan Belgrade and a victory over Chelsea's reserves in the Carabao Cup. Norwich and Brighton were beaten but they lost to Bournemouth. This was the toughest test for a while and Manchester United failed it for long periods and in lots of ways.
Had it not been for seven thrilling second-half minutes when something seemed to click in the final third, this would have been a thrashing. Make no mistake, that brief burst cannot cover this up. Manchester United were miserable for an hour and even when they did turn it around they contrived to blow it. Solskjaer praised his side's character but this wasn't good enough.
Sheffield United have been superb under Wilder but they had a goalkeeper making his top-flight debut and a 37-year-old defender making his first Premier League start of the season. The pace and quality of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial should have enough to cause plenty of problems from the start but the pair barely touched the ball in the first half.
The home team had the first five shots of the game. Sheffield United found space down the channels but it wasn't just the long ball that troubled the visitors. At one stage, Wilder's side had completed three times as many passes in the final third of the pitch. A half-time deficit of just one goal - courtesy of John Fleck's strike - undoubtedly flattered Solskjaer's side.
It was the most shots on target that Sheffield United have had in the first half of a game this season and the fewest shots they have faced. Manchester United are not entitled to win at Bramall Lane but supporters are entitled to expect better than this from a club that spent more money in the summer than their opponents have spent in their entire history.
Phil Jones, on his return to the team, suffered particularly badly. He was playing at the limit even before Lys Mousset bundled him off the ball in the build-up to the opener but none of the defence were comfortable. "To say, they are unnerved is an understatement," said Gary Neville. Solskjaer's decision to withdraw Jones at half-time felt like an act of mercy.
The midfield was overwhelmed. Andreas Pereira struggled, losing the ball 28 times in 73 minutes, while Fred found it tough too amid the frenzied action. "Fred and Pereira is not a midfield, it's a couple of players they have got left who they have had to put in there," said Neville. The trio of Fleck, Oliver Norwood and John Lundstram just had too much for them.
Up front, the forwards were unable to relieve the pressure. Neville labelled their movement an "absolute joke" and it will have alarmed supporters who had been eagerly awaiting Martial's return to see him in such lackadaisical mood. He, Rashford and Daniel James have pace but do they have the blend of characteristics needed to succeed consistently?
Unfortunately for Solskjaer, the answers will need to be found on the training ground because United hardly have a plethora of players to bring in. There is Paul Pogba. Luke Shaw too. But the only other first-team regular who is absent at the moment is Scott McTominay and it is quite extraordinary that he should be missed as much as he was on Sunday.
The chief source of hope comes from the young talent within the squad that is being given the opportunity to shine. Brandon Williams scored a wonderful goal and Mason Greenwood netted for the first time in the Premier League. It was a special day for both teenagers. With time and trust, these are two young players who are only going to improve.
In more ways than one, they were Solskjaer's saving grace.
He hopes it will earn him time and trust too but how much he can be afforded remains worthy of debate. Tactically, the decision to go with a back three against Sheffield United did not work. The opponents looked like they knew the system well. Solskjaer's side didn't. The introduction of Axel Tuanzebe for Martial also handed the initiative back to the hosts.
All the noises coming out of Old Trafford suggest that the intention is to stick with Solskjaer. There is belief in his vision. But that mood music can change quickly - there is a double header against Tottenham and Manchester City coming up - and the soundtrack to the remainder of their season will feature Mauricio Pochettino if United continue to struggle.