Manchester United’s crucial late winner masks familiar flaws in title credentials

United do not control matches, they are not steely in defensive transitions, but the outcome at West Ham will perpetuate a positive feeling around the club for now

Melissa Reddy
Senior Football Correspondent
Sunday 19 September 2021 18:18
<p>Cristiano Ronaldo sees his shot saved by Lukasz Fabianski </p>

Cristiano Ronaldo sees his shot saved by Lukasz Fabianski

“It’s always the outcome that decides the headline that we’ll see,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said on Thursday.

And so Jesse Lingard’s sublime winner, followed by David de Gea’s strong penalty save from Mark Noble in the dramatic dying embers at London Stadium, ensures it’s all Glory Glory Man United.

Enter the gushing over not the player who produced the decisive goal at a pivotal moment, nor the one who significantly prevented one with his first spot-kick save since 2016.

Cristiano Ronaldo, who – of course, of course! – continued his habit of sticking the round thing in the rectangular thing will attract the fuss. Come and adore him.

That’s four goals in three games for the scoring-slash-marketing-slash-pacify-the-supporters machine. There was no surprise to The Main Man, as Gary Neville termed him, doing the exact thing he’s paid to do, with the only shock being the Sky Sports pundit not marking the event with the kind of infatuated content you’d expect from pre-teen Beliebers.

We know that one of the greatest players and goal-getters in this generation is going to increase his haul. But is that now all Manchester United are supposed to be about?

Lingard’s delicious drive on 89 minutes secured the precious points, a huge W, but as we keep being told they are title contenders, can we evaluate their credentials as such?

Are we allowed to actually analyse United’s performances and wonder about their weaknesses in defensive transition? How such an expensively assembled side with such lofty ambitions gives up so many high-quality chances per game? Ponder their lack of control, with their hold on matches over the past month sighted about as many times as Jadon Sancho has been used on the correct flank.

Solskjaer’s comments ignore the fact that United have massively benefitted from scoreline-based examinations. The victories over Wolves and Newcastle masked several, glaring deficiencies as will the late win here.

On Sunday afternoon, the clash was never cast under United’s spell. West Ham carved out the first major chances of note when just one passage of play gave them three cracks at goal. Raphael Varane headed away Vladimir Coufal’s cross from the right, but Jarrod Bowen muscled his way to the loose ball and side-footed a softer shot than he would have liked with De Gea kicking it away.

The ball rebounded to Tomas Soucek, who hit a sweet effort that just cleared the bar.

The hosts managed the opener too, when Said Benrahma was afforded such a large slice of space that he may as well be a billionaire. Yes, the goal was ultimately the result of a wicked deflection off Varane, but United’s passive defending in the build-up was begging to be punished. Dude With Sign’s cardboard for that passage would’ve read: “G’wan, score!”

United equalised five minutes later through You Know Who, Lukasz Fabianski joining the queue of goalkeepers that have spilled Cristiano shots hit straight at them.

Lingard (left) celebrates scoring the winning goal with Ronaldo

And then? Solskjaer’s men created, but do you really expect them not to given their wealth of offensive options? They did not stop West Ham from conjuring openings, which by the way is not easy as they are well coached, have incredible variety in attack and counter sharply.

But the Hammers were without the talismanic Michail Antonio, such a puncture to their blueprint, and yet still, they threatened United until literally the last kick of the match.

That it was Lingard who delivered the knockout blow will sting for David Moyes, whose credence in the forward last season rebuilt his confidence and revitalised his game.

Solskjaer will offer a reminder that winning tight games is a mark of champions, but never controlling any is a supremely convincing counter-argument.

When asked about his overarching philosophy after the embarrassing surrender to Young Boys, United’s manager pointed out that tactical intricacies are given too much weight at times, pointing out “it’s passion, it’s desire, it’s who wants to win that tackle, who wants to win that ball, which one of the strikers has got the desire to get on the end of crosses. You can talk about all sorts, it looks nice on paper, but when you get out on that pitch, it’s about who wants to win.”

The thing is, United have plenty of those qualities, which is how they continue to comeback in games. They have winners. They have a collection of stars.

United do not control matches, they are not steely in defensive transitions. That is not on passion nor desire.

But it’s always the outcome that decides the headline, so Glory Glory Man United and Viva Ronaldo.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments