Article 100 — Manchester United’s Season Winds Down
What a sad and negative way to introduce my 100th article since I started this blog on the 17th of April 2020. Manchester United’s 2019–20 season ended early this morning at the end of a run that lasted 61 games across all competitions.
This is how the Europa League semi-final this morning unfolded:
Sevilla was always likely to be extremely tough opponents for United despite our favourites tag. They had more experience than us as a club in this tournament and of being at this stage of the tournament. They were also going into the semi-final on a long, unbeaten run.
Our form was not bad either and our performance in the semi-final was very good and positive. It was better than when we played against the same club in the Champions League Round of 16, 2017–18. We played better than Sevilla more so in the second half than the first. We had more attempts on goal and Sevilla’s goalkeeper, Bono was in my eyes, the Man Of The Match. For the second match in a row, the opposition goalkeeper pulled out a world-class, Superman performance to deny us.
Despite the positive performance, we are sat here mulling on what-ifs and disappointed at being knocked out of our third semi-final in a row in a season. It is the first time that a club has lost the FA Cup, League Cup and European cup competition semi-final in a season. United finish without a major trophy for the 3rd season in a row, our longest run since 4 successive seasons without a major trophy between 1985–89.
There was little that went wrong in the game for us but unfortunately whatever went wrong, happened in areas where it was costly to make a mistake. In attack, we missed so many chances to score more goals. Sevilla’s Bono made so many saves but I can only think of the first two saves he made in the second half off Mason Greenwood and Anthony Martial to be good saves. As for the rest, I felt it was either shot straight at him or a poor first touch allowed him to close the angle. In games such as these, the margins are so tight. You don’t normally get a lot of chances in games such as this and whenever you get one, you got to take it. We can take some consolation at being able to create so many chances against a top-quality team like Sevilla but the most important thing was to score from those chances and that was missing.
Besides Bono in goal, Sevilla had men behind the ball that were throwing themselves in the face of the shots to block United’s attempts on goal. That just added to the frustration. In the last two games against Copenhagen and Sevilla, we created 33 chances and scored two penalties. It is just not good enough for us at this stage of a tournament if we want to win trophies.
The goal was exemplary of what we were going to face for the rest of the match. A great piece of skill from Martial sent Marcus Rashford through. Rashford should have taken the chance but Bono made a save and from the rebound, Bruno Fernandes couldn’t squeeze the ball in. I don’t think anyone expected a penalty to be awarded for that sequence of play. Rashford was taken out by Diego Carlos after he had shot on goal and it was rash by the defender but I didn’t expect the referee to pull the action back and award a penalty. We created a new record of 22 penalties in a season much to the envy and ridicule of our naysayers.
At the other end, Sevilla only forced David De Gea to one save. After we took the lead, we sat back and looked to hit them on the counter-attack. We were well-organised when we had numbers sitting back and made it tough for Sevilla to break us down. The goals we conceded were both a result of poor defending. For their equaliser, we were unlucky not have got a throw-in awarded to us. We stopped playing at that time while Sevilla carried on playing and punished us for a lapse in concentration. Aaron Wan Bissaka was culpable as he allowed Sergio Reguillon to get a run on him and put in a cross that was not dealt by any United player and found it’s way to the back post, to be swept home by Suso.
For the second goal, one substitute found another. Munir El Haddadi crossed from the right and again the cross was not dealt with. It was perfectly placed for Luuk De Jong to tap home the winner. That sparked an argument between Victor Lindelof and Bruno Fernandes. Sevilla hardly threatened before scoring their goals but two chances and two goals. They showed United how it is really done. Any lapse in concentration, any moment of poor defending and you will be punished. Sevilla made mistakes too but we didn’t punish them and that was the difference.
Out of all the semi-finals we played in, this was the best we played but yet it was not enough to qualify for the final. In games such as this, it is not always about how you play but of winning the game by hook or crook. I will not attribute a weak mentality for this defeat as it had more to do with the mistakes of the players. Tactically and strategically, we got it right to deny Sevilla’s midfield and Ever Banega especially to dictate the game. Sevilla was looking ragged and tired as well when we were dominating and that was a testament to our performance. The inexperience of a young team showed too and I hope the players can use these defeats as motivation for next season. As usual, knives will be drawn on our players.
One of those players in question is captain, Harry Maguire. You would have seen on social media trolling his role in the concession of the first goal as “no-look defending”. He was also trolled when we last lost the FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea. Inevitably his price-tag will be talked about. His price-tag was not set by him but by his former club, Leicester City. United needed a central defender and chose him so had to pay the price to sign him. I am not saying that he is faultless. He did make mistakes and I am sure he will view the match again on video and note where he can improve. Well, I hope he does that because if he does, I am sure he will get better. But he is only human and human beings do make mistakes and that is where you need someone else in the team to bail you out.
To be honest, the level of defending in modern football is not very high at the moment. There are not many strong defences and defenders around. I am not being biased when I say Harry Maguire is one of the better ones but he can get better. I feel he has had a good season with room for improvement. Ole Gunnar Solksjaer has favoured starting Victor Lindelof alongside Maguire but I have always felt Eric Bailly was the better choice as Maguire’s partner. There are also calls from pundits for United to sign a central defender but who is it that we should sign? Kalidou Koulibaly? Maybe Milan Skriniar? I would throw the name of Thiago Silva in the hat. He has the experience, quality and a winning mentality that can serve the team well. Defenders around him can pick his brains and learn off him and he wouldn’t cost a cent.
Aaron Wan Bissaka is another that has got some stick. At this level, he did look a bit out of depth but we shouldn’t forget that he is young and can develop further. He can be very hard to get past as he has shown many times this season. But it is matches like this morning that will help improve his game. He needs to improve on his positioning and reading of the game as well as going forward. I believe he will improve. It would be good if he had an experienced player around as understudy in the right-back berth.
Marcus Rashford too got a lot of stick as his performances since the restart of football has not been at the level expected of him. It is certainly not at the level he was producing before his injury. He needs to find consistency in his play to avoid keep blowing hot and cold.
While Solksjaer got the tactics right, I felt he was too slow to make a change and this is becoming a worrying recurrence now. He is showing little faith in the players he has on the bench. I am not sure if it is a signal to the board that he is unhappy with the quality on our bench or if it’s some other reason but again he was too slow to make changes. He was reactive again instead of being proactive looking to win the game. I do agree that there needs to be an upgrade in the team’s quality and depth but surely the players on the bench could play a part especially since we were looking to win the game.
Before Sevilla scored, it was evident our players were looking tired but he showed little faith and intention to make any changes until we conceded. Our substitutes were introduced with less than 10 minutes to go in the match. Hardly time for anyone to make an impact. Nobody has questioned him on it and on why there is a change in his attitude towards making substitutions. It clearly affected us because I am sure someone fresher like Juan Mata, Odion Ighalo, Daniel James or Jesse Lingard might have been able to offer something different to try and change the game for us. There is still some quality in the players I have stated above. These were also the players that got us far in the Europa League.
In midfield, I was surprised by the inclusion of Fred over Nemanja Matic but I felt Fred played very well. His best performance since football restarted. Paul Pogba was superb as well. United need to sign a central midfielder because we will struggle without Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes. Neither player can be expected to play every game either. Thiago Alcantara was courted by Sir Alex Ferguson but he decided to move to Bayern Munich at that time. He is available as long as Bayern and Liverpool don’t agree on a transfer fee and we should capitalise. Donny Van Der Beek has been linked to us and he could be another option as can Sergej Milinkovic-Savic or Ruben Neves.
We have been linked for very long to Jadon Sancho and it looks like we have been putting all our eggs in one basket in trying to sign him. That deal too looks like it is at a dead end. We do need depth on the wings and if Sancho fails, why not go for Adama Traore or Federico Chiesa? In attack too, why not go for Raul Jimenez or the experienced Mario Mandzukic for free. Mandzukic will bring quality, experience and a winning mentality to the team.
Overall, we have finished the season in 3rd place which is an improvement on last season but the number of points we finished with is low for a third-placed finish. In Spain or Italy, we will not even be in the top four with the points tally we finished this season with. We qualified for the Champions League which should be the minimum objective for the season for a club of the magnitude of Manchester United. Getting to the semi-finals of three cup competitions is good but we need to be getting to the finals and winning it.
The board needs to back the manager with quality signings. I don’t care how much it costs, we should go and sign players of quality and of the right personality without having to drag our heels over every transfer. I have mentioned two players we could sign in their 30s with experience and a winning mentality. We need players like that too in the team as the team is still young and lacking leadership on the pitch at times. The impact these players will have on all the young ones in the training ground and dressing room will be immense.
I am just a fan in Singapore writing this blog article. Manchester United should have the resources available to them to be able to identify the right players and talent from any part of the world to bring to United and boost its quality. If smaller-named clubs can do so why not us? Our incompetency and inefficiency on the transfer market is my biggest worry with regards to United. It will keep holding us back. With the next season coming up in less than a month, we have our work cut out to rest and recover and sign the players we need to improve. I am not confident that we will do well in the transfer window. We shall see how it all transpires. Fingers crossed, things change for the better for us.