Empires crumble but their mystique takes a while to fade. The words Manchester United evoke a powerful, dominant team that is able to sweep aside opponents. That fear factor is dissipating with every week. West Ham United were not awed in the slightest during their comfortable 2-0 victory over United at the London Stadium.
Manuel Pellegrini’s side did not need to be anywhere near their best. They could afford to be ordinary. In a tepid game Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men never looked like earning a point.
West Ham can take pride in their superiority and their goals. The first, a nicely worked move involving Mark Noble, Felipe Anderson and Andriy Yarmolenko was one of the few enlivening moments in a poor first half. Yarmolenko’s control and finish in the area were exceptional, though Harry Maguire and the United defence were hopelessly static.
Aaron Cresswell’s free-kick with six minutes left was masterfully executed. Solskjaer thought the difference between the teams was simply that West Ham took their chances. “It was a game that could go both ways,” he said. “They grasped their moments.” That was delusional.
Neither team injected much pace into the match. The passing on both sides was ragged. Ballcarriers were allowed to dwell in possession and consequently took too many touches. Fluency was a rarity. Yet West Ham were significantly better and deserved the result. United were a shambles.
Where do United’s problems begin? What happens on the pitch is merely a symptom of wider issues at a club. But the field of play is where you start and work backwards to find the root of the malaise.
“We didn’t create enough chances,” Solskjaer said. That was self-evident. Marcus Rashford laboured hard until he was withdrawn with a groin injury close to the hour. The 21-year-old is a support forward rather than a cutting-edge goal-getter. He may work better in tandem with Anthony Martial when the Frenchman returns to fitness but neither man appears to be a 20-goal-a-season striker. Both are good players but neither has lived up to the wishful thinking that has characterised their careers so far. Mason Greenwood is the latest to be endowed with unrealistic expectations. All three might benefit from playing alongside an established, feared goalscorer.
The supply lines were poor against West Ham. At his peak Juan Mata was peripheral; at 31 he is almost anonymous. Daniel James would probably thrive in a good side but disappears in this bad one. Andreas Pereira put in a good cross that Mata wasted but otherwise had little impact overall. Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic are essentially destructive. That should not be the front six of a club that has spent nearly £900 million in the past six years, even with injuries. Paul Pogba, who has genuine superstar credentials, will soon be back but he is not the sort of player who can galvanise a side and make the men around him gel.
Perhaps the worst thing that happened to United was not Sir Alex Ferguson’s exit but that David Gill departed the club at the same time. Gill’s expertise in the boardroom would have softened the impact of Ferguson’s sudden retirement. Instead Ed Woodward took the helm at Old Trafford. The chief executive – even more than the Glazers – is one of the root causes of the mess on the pitch.
Never mind the poor recruitment, the decision to name Solskjaer as permanent manager in March was an act of knee-jerk stupidity. There was no need to rush the decision. United have bought badly and appointed badly. The Norwegian is as out of his depth as are some of his players. Like those players, the 46-year-old might have been perfectly adequate in the right structure, with a framework of competent professionals around him. In the present environment though, Solskjaer is fated to fail.
“The attitude and desire is there,” the United manager said. “That’s not the problem. It’s the quality in our decision-making, in the execution. We are going to hit some bumps along the road, some highs and lows. This group is out there determined. It was a good atmosphere in the dressing-room. They’ve got the focus right.”
If the mood was really good after the game, Solskjaer has far deeper problems. There was a lack of leadership and resistance on the pitch. It will take a huge amount of money and probably a new face in the dugout to solve United’s issues. The lack of fight in the manager’s demeanour was surprising, too. When does he get nasty?
As usual, the support from the away end was unstinting. The Red Army always make plenty of noise but perhaps they should be looking at themselves. The Glazers have taken more than £1 billion out of Old Trafford in the past 14 years but the ‘green and gold until it’s sold’ protest in the stands fizzled out very quickly.
The successes of the tail end of the Ferguson era lulled supporters into a false sense of security. What should be an extremely powerful fanbase has been strangely quiet as the profits pile higher and the points and prizes dry up.
United do not look like a top 10 side in the Premier League. Not so long ago teams like West Ham needed a fire and brimstone performance to unnerve the Red Devils. It was a routine win for Pellegrini’s team – there were suggestions around the East End that Norwich City caused them more problems last month when the Hammers won by the same scoreline.
When Manchester City came to the London Stadium on the first day of the season, West Ham’s trepidation was palpable and the home side were routed. Against Solskjaer’s team there was no apprehension at they picked through the ruins of what should be one of the top flight’s powerhouses. The only people who should be afraid of the future are those connected with United.
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