Manchester United have failed to take advantage of Chelsea’s slip-up this weekend.
Have you heard that before? Sounds familiar, right? Obviously it was said this Monday night after United could only draw with Southampton at Old Trafford, meaning they only gained a point on Chelsea after the Blues had the colour kicked out of them by Sheffield United.
But it was also said when United could only draw with Everton following Chelsea’s loss to Bournemouth. Or when United’s otherwise credible draw with Wolves being marred by maintaining the status quo after Chelsea drew with Leicester. It was also said three more times before that, dating all the way back to New Year’s Day.
In fact it was in the last gasps of 2019 when Chelsea lost at home to Southampton and the Red Devils smashed Newcastle 4-1 that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men actually managed to punish a Chelsea slip. Since 2020 began it’s been a game of hot potato with fourth place in the Premier League; every time Chelsea chucked it United’s way the Red Devils would fumble and chuck it right back.
After the Boxing Day win, United were four points behind Chelsea. Now, sixteen matches later, United are four points behind Chelsea; though should they win their game in-hand the gap will be cut to one. Given the outrageous form United have shown in 2020 since Bruno Fernandes became part of the side, and the spotty way Chelsea have played, for the gap to have only been reduced by three points, in effect a single victory, is a damning fact that Manchester United have to reckon with.
Man Utd have finished outside of the Premier League Top 4 for a 30th consecutive matchday.
They were seconds away from moving into third spot. ⏳ pic.twitter.com/fVQ2ezdwVW
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) July 13, 2020
For all the talk of adding players to up the squad quality (and to be sure United desperately need a right-winger, left-back, centre-back and defensive midfielder) the most pressing concern for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has to be the mental strength of his side.
Not the strength to perform under adversity. Their big-game records proves they can handle that, but the mental strength to win when they are supposed to. The winning mentality that all elite sides have in spades to just keep on winning when you’re supposed to, even if the opponent is fighting back. That is a much harder thing to do than people make out, as United are clearly showing.
Now alright, one of the games where United failed to take advantage of Chelsea slipping up was away to Liverpool. But the rest were winnable games, and just as many have taken place since Bruno Fernandes energised the side and make them great again.
That United couldn’t muster the ruthless energy to seize upon their opponent’s weakness is the biggest reason why Solskjaer’s United feels more like a tribute act than the genuine article. More No Way Sis than anything involving the Gallagher brothers.
Sir Alex Ferguson was watching from the stands as Solskjaer’s men struggled against Southampton and he must have wondered what had become of his United side. Alright, the Red Devils have struggled basically every season since the great Scot retired but those issues were nominally about quality. This current side has quality, however.
Now, sure, Saints are a good side coached into a potentially great one by Ralph Hasenhuttl, but United hit them with two goals in three minutes in the first-half. Goals that showed the disparity in the quality of players. Good coaching was a leveller but the Red Devils had enough of an edge that they should have kicked on and won that game comfortably. Instead it’s Saints that were comfortable.
“We had 10 minutes where we were out of the game and you immediately see how much quality the opponent has. But, it was good that we found back our track,” Hasenhuttl said. That he feels his side only lost control of the game for 10 minutes is damning. Even more so because he’s probably correct. At no point did United ever look like putting their foot down on Southampton and turning an edge 2-1 into a comfortable 3-1 or even a cruising 4-1. The kind of powerful, emphatic win that the elite sides churn out with ease.
No, United looked tentative. They never committed to extending their lead. Their recent wins have been very impressive but they’ve rarely had to genuinely fight for them, they’ve just been very good and won as a result. Southampton presented a different challenge and Solskjaer’s subs were negative, giving the whole game a desperate vibe, like United were so afraid of losing their lead that they didn’t even want to try anything for fear of it going wrong.
And as always, they held onto that lead so tightly that it ended up slipping through their fingers. Had they instead looked to extend the lead they probably would have done it and would have gone third in the table, utterly in control of their own destiny.
As it turns out, Leicester’s fall from grace has meant United do still control their own Champions League destiny, but you have to wonder what use it even is? Yes sure, United could win all their remaining games and finish fourth. Hell, they could even afford to drop some points if Leicester continue their tailspin. But what good would that do?
You can’t go into the Champions League as unsure of yourself as United currently are, the teams there are all successful in their own domestic leagues and will take brutal advantage of your weaknesses. You need to be able to put teams away, both directly and in the standings when they show a weakness. United would basically be falling backwards into the Champions League because of Leicester’s implosion, not because they have ruthlessly hunted down a flagging Chelsea and overtaken them.
Sides in transition always talk about “the final piece of the puzzle” that will take them over the line. And while for most sides that’s a player, for Manchester United it will be their young side discovering that old killer instinct that Solskjaer used to possess in his playing days. That ruthless ability to punish the mistakes of others. Instead of what United are now, which is a talented side that is quite frankly just being too nice to all their opponents, particularly Chelsea, in the race for the top four.