In a stodgy night of football, Manchester United snuck past Partizan with a 0-1 win in Belgrade.
The goal came from the penalty spot and maintain United’s hold on first place in their Europa League group. Who were the winners and losers?
Winner: Brandon Williams
The thing that was most readily apparent as United fought their way to a 0-1 win is that Brandon Williams is the best left-back at Old Trafford. Now that may not seem like much of a statement given his competition is perpetual sadsack Luke Shaw and the tireless “playing Liverpool expert” Ashley Young, but it really was quite something to see the 19-year-old play so well in such a tough arena and given basically no help by any of his team-mates save for the occasional nice pass from Marcos Rojo.
This game was just Williams’ fifth as a United player yet he looked as though he had been at this level all his life. Beyond getting fortunate VAR isn’t active in the Europa League so his completely accidental and unavoidable handball wasn’t given as a penalty, Williams gave no quarter to Partizan in both defence or attack. He was an incessant force up and down the flank.
Alright in attack he was obviously limited by the general terribleness of United’s overall play, but he still managed to drive forward into the Partizan box and win the penalty that gave The Red Devil’s the win they hardly deserved. Defensively he was so dogged, making 2 tackles, 5 clearances and 2 interceptions. This is a youngster who should just be trying to get a handful of minutes but he is instead looking like he should be one of the first names on the team-sheet given his relentless style of play in both defence and attack.
Loser: Jesse Lingard
In truth this could have been any of the attacking players that started the game for Manchester United, but the main loser is probably worthy of being Jesse Lingard. Juan Mata at least created a glorious chance for Scott McTominay, what did Jesse Lingard do? Nothing.
As he did last month. And the month before. And the one before that. Jesse Lingard is a role player who would excel if used sparingly for specific tactical jobs. Instead United are relying on him as though he were a superstar, which results in a frustrating display from a clearly talented player thrust into a role he is ill-suited for. Counter-intuitively, if United are to get the best of Lingard they need to use him less so that he can offer more.
Winner: James Garner
Manchester United have had a lot of issues this season but none moreso than their midfield. The Red Devils failed to sign any of their targets in that area this summer, be they defensive midfielders or no. 10’s, and it really has shown with a series of terrible displays from average players, lit up only by Scott McTominay outdoing his reputation and being, well, kind of okay.
Into that desert of quality came James Garner, an 18-year-old midfielder making his full United debut in a hostile away ground. To make matters more difficult, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s 3-5-2 system ended up with Garner playing in oceans of space by himself, hardly conducive environment for a passing midfielder to thrive.
Yet thrive Garner did. Alright no one’s going to be calling him the Birkenhead Busquets just yet but he was composed and clear in his ideas unlike pretty much every other United player out in Belgrade beyond Brandon Williams and Marcos Rojo. He regained possession 9 times, more than any United player, and passed it fairly well even though the system was not set-up to help him do that.
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Loser: Anthony Martial
Anthony Martial did not play well against Partizan Belgrade. For about an hour he ambled around the field and tried to make things happen but was largely unable to do anything from open play before being eventually subbed off for Marcus Rashford.
Martial was constantly late to 50/50’s, he was sloppy and slow in possession and he gave away a tonne of free-kicks with some rough challenges. He did step up and coolly convert the penalty United were awarded just before half-time; but as Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba are the club’s designated penalty takers then that skill will likely go to waste.
It was clear that Martial was still some way short of match fitness, but that can’t excuse some of the shocking non-football the fabulous Frenchman was playing. The Red Devils are desperate for a striker of Martial’s skill-set to rise up, and if he is still miles off the pace then there’s going to be trouble.
Manchester United have won an away game for the first time since that famous night in Paris, 232 days ago – but they do so in such a disappointing fashion that you question whether or not they’ll be able to translate it to a win on Sunday against Norwich.
Obviously The Canaries play with an open and expansive style which should create many chances for the likes of Marcus Rashford and Daniel James to run the break – but beyond playing on the counter United have no ideas.
It’s gotten to the point where they need teams to push up on them in order for them to play well, and even though Norwich will do just that they also have sharper quality than Partizan do and as such don’t be surprised if they manage to break United down. Hell, Partizan all but managed to (they out-shot United 15-5 but only two of their efforts hit the target) so Daniel Farke’s men should have no problem.
Loser: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
How do Manchester United play football? What is the way in which they function? Obviously Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has spoken of wanting to play fast, attacking football – but how does he plan on doing that? It’s clear Solskjaer doesn’t know, and as a result United are formless.
There are ideas here, sure. United play out from the back (because what serious side doesn’t do that?) and they use their wingers well and are not above deploying a false nine or a back three or a high press But nothing is done with any sense of coherence, it’s all just done every now and again in the hope that it works. They won the game tonight but for the second successive Europa League game they have not managed to create a shot on target from open play.
That is no way to play football in the modern era, not if you want to succeed. Manchester United are crying out for a clear, defined philosophy and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s inability to provide one only pours gasoline onto the fire that says he’s not up to the task of resurrecting The Red Devils. He has to do better.