Whatever happens against Newcastle on Boxing Day, Manchester United’s 2-0 defeat to bottom club Watford means that they are now guaranteed to have their lowest-ever points tally at the halfway stage of a Premier League season.
On the face of it, this game was decided by two errors from sources that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer probably regarded as strengths.
David de Gea is a superb shot-stopper but, inexplicably, he failed to keep out Ismaila Sarr’s tame effort.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka is a tremendous tackler but he made a poor decision to dive in on Sarr inside the box. The subsequent penalty allowed Watford to double their lead.
“We gifted them two goals in the second half,” said Solskjaer.
But to the Manchester United manager’s credit, he refused to hide behind the mistakes. United were awful long before that. This defeat was also about all too familiar weaknesses.
“The first half, it could easily have been my testimonial,” complained Solskjaer. “It was very subdued, slow, no tempo or urgency. There was no intent or urgency to make us deserve to win the game. There are no excuses at all. There is nothing I can put my finger on.”
That last comment might worry Manchester United supporters because the problems that their team are having against weaker opposition should be obvious. Remarkably, three of United’s last six Premier League defeats have been against teams starting the day in the relegation zone.
It was not difficult to see this coming.
“The games that have caused United problems are these sort of games,” Gary Neville had told Sky Sports beforehand.
United have now taken 14 points from 13 games against teams outside the so-called big six. It is why those recent wins over Manchester City and Tottenham, while a welcome fillip, always had to come with a caveat.
They were never the issue for this side.
Manchester United have won five of the six Premier League games in which they have had less than half of the ball this season, drawing the other.
In contrast, they have won just one of the dozen games in which they have had more possession.
It is a damning statistic.
There is no future in this type of football. Burnley and Newcastle might be able to tick along by picking up their points in games where they allow the opponent to dominate possession but the big teams have to find a way to win with the ball, as well as without it.
For example, Liverpool have won 93 per cent of the matches in which they have had the majority of the possession – only United with their counter-attacking football denying them.
Leicester have a win percentage of 77 per cent in these games. Manchester City and Chelsea, teams who have had difficulty controlling the counter-attack this season, have still won 65 per cent and 56 per cent of these games respectively.
United’s record stands at just eight per cent.
Extend the sequence back into last season and it’s one win in 17 games in which they have had more of the ball. Only Norwich have been unable to avoid defeat against Solskjaer’s side. Deny United space in behind, and they are not good enough to break teams down.
“We created loads of chances at the end but that was only after they were 2-0 up,” acknowledged Solskjaer. Indeed, it was telling that the best and only chance when the game was goalless came as a result of Watford’s defence pushing up to the halfway line – allowing Jesse Lingard to run through. He made a mess of the attempted lob.
When the statistics were put to Solskjaer at Vicarage Road, after a game in which his side had 64 per cent of the ball, he said: “I don’t know the stats. Today was not about the amount of possession. Today was about quality when we do things.”
He is half right. Quality is an issue. It is just that it becomes most apparent when there are bodies in between United and the opposition goal.
“They haven’t got enough creativity in the final third,” said Neville.
What is the solution to that? On this evidence, Paul Pogba’s return will help.
The midfielder made his return from injury during the second half and United looked a very different team as a result. They had more shots in the 29 minutes that he played than the 64 minutes prior to that. They had more touches in the box in that time too.
“The last half an hour, when Paul came on, that was probably the only plus today,” said Solskjaer. “He gave us that little bit of edge, quality, urgency. He played some great passes over the top. He had some nice combinations. He had a chance himself.”
Pogba’s passing was hugely impressive. There was one gorgeous ball that put Marcus Rashford through just minutes after he came on. Then there was another long pass that Mason Greenwood might have scored from soon after.
Pogba adds a new dimension. He has played more through-balls than any other United player this season, despite being on the pitch for only 30 per cent of the Premier League football that the team has played.
He has delivered more assists than Scott McTominay and Fred combined, creating more chances from open play than McTominay despite the young Scot having had 933 more minutes in which to conjure something.
Of course, that’s not McTominay’s principal role. He has been excellent this season. He and Fred have given United something of a platform – their hard running helping in the big games. But they cannot pick out the passing angles like Pogba.
In fact, with Juan Mata’s best days seemingly long behind him, there is nobody else at United capable of providing the service that the forwards require.
There is an ongoing suggestion that Pogba wants out. Moreover, the argument often made is that Manchester United would be wise to move him on. That they need players who want to be a part of the club for the long term if they hope to progress with this project.
Perhaps that’s true. But without him, or someone like him, the evidence is growing that Solskjaer’s football is doomed to fail.
Gary Neville’s verdict
“I think that against teams that sit off against them and counter-attack, which most teams are now doing away from home in the bottom half of the table, they have a real problem with creativity.