In a tight and tense night of football, Manchester United drew 0-0 with Real Sociedad, qualifying for the Europa League round of 16 with a 0-4 aggregate win.
La Real were never just going to show up at Old Trafford defending as naively as they did in San Sebastian. Then they didn’t press the passers enough and weren’t sharp enough to close down Marcus Rashford whenever he got near the ball.
Tonight they cane with an entirely different resolve. A more steely performance, and as a result we once again got yet another heaping spoonful of evidence that Manchester United have serious structural problems when it comes to teams that don’t just give themselves up on the break. And that’s alright, a lot of teams are only good on the break; but United are trying to be better than those teams.
United are trying to become genuine title contenders (like some thought they were for that brief spell they spent atop the leagueearlier in the year) and to that end they now face a stern test of those credentials over the coming weeks that both partly explain tonight’s lethargy but also offer up a chilling prediction based on it.
Alright yes, Manchester United won the first leg 0-4 but Real Sociedad are a good enough side that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer couldn’t rotate his side all too much (especially given United’s lack of squad depth). As a result we saw a lot of United players going through the motions, doing the bare minimum to not lose while also trying desperately to avoid injury for the upcoming gauntlet.
Manchester United’s next five games see them travel to Chelsea, Crystal Palace and then Manchester United before hosting fourth-place West Ham and then taking on Leicester City in the FA Cup. Inbetween those matches will be laced a round of 16 Europa League tie too.
Things are not about to get easier and tonight Manchester United floundered so much simply because their opponent declined to impale themselves with suicidal defending as they had done in the first leg.
Yes obviously United had a goal disallowed (correctly too, given Victor Lindelof’s Street Fighter-esque Tiger Knee to Jon Bautista) but Real Sociedad missed a penalty in the 13th minute that, had it gone in, would have sent fear and uncertainty quaking through United.
But United couldn’t raise themselves. Not in the first-half when Bruno Fernandes led them, not in the second when La Real’s chief tormentor Marcus Rashford came on either. Even the delight of Amad Diallo and Shola Shoretire coming on couldn’t lift proceedings. After one bit of great play soon after coming on, where Amad won the ball back and went on a nice dribble, United almost avoided giving him the ball to the extent that his biggest contribution to the game was his tackling.
Amad Diallo made more tackles than any other Man Utd player vs. Real Sociedad (4).
He was only on the pitch for 31 minutes. ? pic.twitter.com/jamv46nLtr
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 25, 2021
And yes Dean Henderson didn’t have a save to make until late, late in the game but as much as Man Utd were let off by Oyarzabal’s shocking penalty miss, that also seemed to suck the air out of whatever drive La Real had to actually try and turn this around. Their belief left the pitch along with Oyarzabal’s spot-kick, flying off into low-earth orbit.
So Ole Gunnar Solskjaer now has a problem on his hands. Yes it was nice that United ended the night with over half the team being players from their youth academy, but again: Man Utd are neither supremely dominant or some plucky underdogs that they can be satisfied with such niceties. They’re in this to win, and they didn’t come close to that.
After two buoyant, momentum generating wins against La Real and Newcastle, Solskjaer’s wonky team selection and strange substitutions have let all the air out of what was a rapidly expanding balloon. And with a mountain of fixtures in the way, the worry that the could fail to hit the heights they’ll need to hit.