Football Features

“Matic plumbs new depths” – Five things learned as West Ham state top-six intentions vs Man Utd

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 16:23, 22 September 2019

After a miserable afternoon of football, West Ham beat Manchester United 2-0.

The weather was gloomy and grey in east London and the football followed that trend, although the Hammers illuminated proceedings with two superb goals to pick up the win. What did we learn?

1. West Ham are on the up

This was one of those games where you’d say that Man Utd lost it, rather than West Ham won it. And that’s not because of some perceived notion that Man Utd “should” beat West Ham purely because they’re Man Utd. It’s not even because of the quality of player each club has because honestly man-for-man you’d take the West Ham attack over the Man Utd one.

No, this is a game that Man Utd lost because neither side really showed the kind of attacking impetus that you would expect for all the players on display. Even West Ham, as good as their two goals were, offered up the bare minimum in terms of quality.

A better side would have ripped them to shreds, and West Ham barely nudged their way to victory thanks to two moments of brilliance from Andriy Yarmolenko and Aaron Cresswell. That win makes it four clean sheets in a row and six games without defeat for the Irons, so whilst they’re not good, they’re definitely not bad – and that’s an improvement for them.

2. Matic offers no protection

Nemanja Matic used to be very good at football. He was an athletic powerhouse with the energy and dynamism to play a box-to-box role with an emphasis on defence. He was a crucial part of Chelsea winning the Premier League in 2014/15 and 2016/17, so when they sold him to Manchester United people raised their eyebrows.

But beyond his first few games where he looked very good, he’s been a steadily declining force until today against West Ham he was an embarrassing nonsense of a player and plumbed new depths.

Here is a list of things that would offer the Man Utd defence more protection than Nemanja Matic:

  • 62-year-old Bryan Robson
  • A six-year-old child
  • A packet of crisps
  • A mannequin of Roy Keane
  • 10 cats taped together in the shape of a man

He was withdrawn on 70 minutes but by then the damage had been done. Man Utd were losing because Matic had let Mark Noble dilly dally on the ball outside the Man Utd box and then make an easy pass to Anderson, who Matic didn’t close down. And then the Serb did nothing to help United get back into the game, constantly taking too many touches and slowing attacks down. That he continues to play in a side that ostensibly wants to play fast, attacking (or counter-attacking) football is the biggest condemnation of the Man Utd coaches possible.

Subscribe to Squawka’s Youtube channel here.

3. Striker woes and injury blows

Marcus Rashford looks a player short of confidence (and drained of energy). The Englishman began the season playing left-wing, but an injury to Anthony Martial thrust him back into the striker’s role just in time to face a host of sides that were going to deny him the space in behind that he needs to perform up-front. But he had to play as he was the only fit striker. So he played on Thursday in the Europa League and then again today, and as a result just never looked like he had it.

Then he got injured. And Man Utd had to bring on Jesse Lingard. In attack. Predictably they looked utterly hopeless and failed to score. And now they’re faced with a very serious problem: Martial is out, Rashford is out… if Mason Greenwood can’t recover from illness in time then who exactly will start up-front for Man Utd in their next few games? And even if Greenwood is fit… are Man Utd really about to run with a 17-year-old as their lead striker for a serious run of games?

Maybe they shouldn’t have sold Marouane Fellaini.

4. Wan-Bissaka: full-back

Back in the genesis of football, full-backs were the rear-most player on the pitch. As the game evolved they ended up moving wide, but they were originally the last line of defence. They were the ones who were always there to make the last-ditch tackles and prevent opponents from scoring.

In this way, Aaron Wan-Bissaka is a true full-back. Most full-backs these days have evolved to be attacking players, to the point where the best ones are not exceptional defenders, but that’s a trade-off most teams are happy to take. Wan-Bissaka, however, is an outrageous defender. A player of such ridiculous instinct, timing and technique that it’s rare to ever see him beaten by a man.

West Ham tried today, they tried on both flanks as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer briefly swapped Wan-Bissaka over to left-back in the first half and the Englishman handled that with consummate ease; he made three tackles, three interceptions and three clearances. Wan-Bissaka is the ultimate last-ditch defender, and a true two-sided full-back.

5. Solskjaer’s lack of execution

José Mourinho was speaking at half-time about Man Utd’s defending for West Ham’s first goal, and he said: “the low block was correct, but the idea of what a low block is…” and then he shrugged.

He couldn’t even finish the sentence because Man Utd’s defending was shocking. Like Mourinho said, they were in a low block which is good – but it was an imitation low block, because the focus and intensity was missing. There was no constant movement to shut down passing lanes and prevent attacking players from finding space outside the box.

That is pretty much how Man Utd have played ever since the 0-0 draw with Liverpool last season. All talk, no walk. Solskjaer often speaks about wanting Man Utd to be a ferocious team capable of playing fast attacking football. However, without a solid understanding of how to actually make that happen, then these are but words. The basest sentimentality, a child’s prayer.

And despite all the love for him, doesn’t that just sum up Solskjaer’s time in charge of Man Utd? He says the right things, he has the right ideas, but the execution? Sorely missing.