Two steps forward three steps back at Manchester United

Written by Ian Hope @halftimepiesite

With ten minutes remaining at the Vitality Stadium, Bournemouth on Saturday afternoon Manchester United reverted back to type. Huffing and puffing struggling to break a team down who play deep, all I could think was two steps forward three steps back.

After a dismal performance away at Newcastle just prior to the international break, pessimism reigned throughout the reds support and rightly so. Another inept and lacklustre showing away at a side low on confidence after being brushed aside 5-0 away at Leicester City had many wondering who was to blame? The board? The manager? Ed Woodward?

Despite fearing a drubbing at home to arch rivals and unbeaten Liverpool in front of the television cameras, positivity reigned after a tactical masterclass from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Reverting to a 3-5-2 with Ashley Young and Wan-Bisakka as wing backs pushing Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson deep into their own half and playing on the counter with the pace of Marcus Rashford and Daniel James, United almost came away with all three points. One point and a shot in the arm for confidence had people hoping United could kick on.

Then came a professional away performance at Partizan Belgrade winning in the Europa League thus ending a winless eleven game run on the road. If any game was going to trip United up it was going to be at Carrow Road against a Norwich City side who love to attack. Although the Canaries are on a poor run of form, they had beaten the champions Manchester City 3-2 not too long ago. A tight and compact ground with a full house screaming for United’s scalp, this was always going to be a tricky away fixture.

However, United dominated the game from start to finish and played some great attacking football rarely seen this season apart from at home to Chelsea and Leicester City. United scored more than one goal since the opening game of the season against Chelsea and David De Gea was rarely troubled.

A trip to Stamford Bridge always worries United given the awful record the reds have in West London. The last United win in the league at Chelsea was a 3-2 win back in October 2012. In fact United didn’t win again at Stamford Bridge in any competition until a 2-0 FA Cup victory in February 2019 so the Carabao cup draw looked a tall order for Solskjaer’s men.

Solskjaer opted for a strong side in the hope of keeping this mini revival going and he was proved right to do so with United putting in a polished away performance winning 2-1. Apart from twenty minutes after half time when Chelsea upped their game, the reds controlled their hosts. Solskjaer again showing his tactical nouse by switching the sides formation from a three at the back to a traditional back four to repel Chelsea’s attacks in the second half. The move worked to perfection with United seeing the game out comfortably once Rashford scored the stunning winner.

So to another tricky away fixture down at Bournemouth. On paper Eddie Howe’s side had not scored in three games and were struggling to find some form. Although Bournemouth had previously only beaten United twice in their history (1984 & 2015) any side has to work hard for the points against Howes outfit.

For all the optimism of Anthony Martial’s return to the side and his great link up play with Marcus Rashford and the emergence of Scott McTominay driving the midfield once again United put in a tepid and inept attacking performance which made every red feel like it was two steps forward and three steps back. A feeling that has been on repeat ever since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013.

During David Moyes short time at the helm, United had periods of mini good runs only to come spectacularly to an end. After two 1-0 home defeats in a row to Everton and Newcastle, United went on a decent revival winning away at Aston Villa 3-0, 3-1 at home to West Ham United, coming from 2-0 down to win 3-2 away at Hull City on Boxing Day and winning 1-0 away at Norwich.

Twelve points out of twelve had United buzzing and a New Years Day home game against Tottenham Hotspur had United fans thinking the Christmas period would end with a full house 15 points. Yet United put in a poor performance and reverted back to the side who had languished in 9th at points in this season. A 2-1 home defeat knocked everyone back and so began the cycle of negativity just when optimism was on the horizon at Old Trafford.

Under Louis Van Gaal the very next season United went on a ten game unbeaten run after a defeat at rivals City in November 2014 moving the reds up from 9th to 3rd in the league table. Then came a shambolic 1-0 home defeat to Southampton giving the south coast side their first win at Old Trafford in 27 years. In that game, United failed to have a strike on target. For all the goals and performances in that ten game run (winning 2-1 at Arsenal and beating Liverpool 3-0 at home) everything came crashing down in such a soul destroying way.

The next season a similar pattern continued with a poor run prior to Christmas with defeats at Bournemouth, home to Norwich and away at Stoke City on Boxing Day which had the first signs of discontent amongst United fans during the Van Gaal era.

However, United recovered going unbeaten in the next four games including a 1-0 away win at Anfield. Just as United appeared to have turned a corner after a poor December, then came the typical response and another shocking performance at home to Southampton with another 1-0 loss. One shot on target when Daley Blind shot from 40 yards, the reds were booed off such was the fury at the powder puff reds under Van Gaal that season.

Inconsistency was the key during Jose Mourinho’s first season at Old Trafford. Winning the League Cup and Europa League in his first season yet in the Premier League the reds hardly ever moved from 6th spot. It could be argued that the next season, consistency was finally the key as United stayed in 2nd place in the premier league throughout.

The 2018/19 season was to be Mourinho’s last in charge as he was sacked by December. Again United went through mini revivals which were overshadowed by some horrendous defeats and performances at Brighton, home to Spurs, away at West Ham, City and finally Liverpool.

Then came the unbeaten run under Solskjaer that ultimately got him the job full time winning ten and drawing two league games in a wonderful run which saw United finally play some consistently good football. However, as with United post Ferguson the dip came and how!

Five defeats in the remaining nine league games blew any chance of a top 3 finish and so continued the consistently inconsistent Man United. For all the good performances where United have clicked and optimism rises, soon around the corner is a woefully inept performance which pours cold water on any optimism.

How a team can click so well like at Norwich City and Chelsea then revert back to such dour football is difficult to understand. All runs come to an end but it is the change in performances that is worrying. You would expect the confidence to be running through the players yet against Bournemouth many seemed incapable of stringing passess together.

So as we have come accustomed watching United, it continues to be two steps forward and three steps back.

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