Manchester United travelled to the Premier League’s worst team needing a win – and left with faces as red as their shirts.
The Red Devils started well enough as Scott McTominay’s eighth-minute strike, helped along by poor goalkeeping from Jonas Lossl, gave them a lead against a long-since relegated side that had mustered just four points from their previous 23 games.
United’s bright start quickly faded and there was little to separate the two sides in a game that for long spells resembled a relegation scrap, with Paul Pogba finding the woodwork and an under-fire David de Gea saving from Karlan Grant.
Then, on the hour, Lossl’s side-winder kick caught Luke Shaw out of position and allowed Isaac Mbenza to slot his first-ever Terriers goal through the legs of De Gea.
Another Pogba effort found the post again and substitute Tahith Chong forced a good stop from Lossl, but not even eight minutes of added time – totted up after Mbenza had destroyed the corner flag in jubilation – was enough to rescue the visitors.
As it was, their soporific display sent their top-four hopes into a permanent sleep.
McTominay and mediocrity
“He’s humble, he wants to learn, yet he doesn’t want headlines or flashes.” So said Jose Mourinho of McTominay, a comment that at the time felt more of a swipe at Pogba than praise for a future Manchester United star. A little more than a year later and only the most blinkered of Pogba fans would jot the £89m man’s name down ahead of McTominay in the starting XI.
Since slipping quietly onto the scene, the Scotland international is sturdy. Solid. Safe. Handy for a team whose default setting is disjointed.
He’s not just a steady Eddy, either. McTominay was first into the box and first back to defend numerous times on Sunday, and was the only player in red to sustain a pass success rate of 90 per cent.
Scott McTominay’s first half vs. Huddersfield by numbers:— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) May 5, 2019
100% final third passes completed
100% defensive aerials won
89% pass accuracy
2 shots (1 on target)
Building on an excellent month. 🙌🏴 pic.twitter.com/rs6xj6rMtE
This is, however, Manchester United. And the opposition was Huddersfield, a team that last won a Premier League game on February 26 and are up there – or rather down there – with 2007/08 Derby as the worst side the division has ever seen.
A 22-year-old showing a bit of passion, nous and end product should be the bare minimum for a club of United’s stature. If he was a Manchester City or Liverpool player, he’d merely be a useful rotational piece.
In truth, the Red Devils’ only ‘silver lining’ – a fairly promising academy product – speaks for how grim the clouds gathered over Old Trafford truly are.
HIS ED’S NOT RIGHT
No amount of money in the world is likely to stitch Alexis Sanchez’s ego back together again. Google ‘biggest flops’ and the Chilean will be on the podium for eternity after prioritising cash over trophies with Manchester City. Still, he could turn the amount of pound notes he’s earned with the Reds into an incredibly comfy supersized mattress.
Based on figures supplied by Der Spiegel, Sanchez has earned approximately £29.5m since performing that ditty on the piano 67 weeks ago. That’s about £1m per start, or £6m per goal.
It wasn’t even as if he played particularly poorly against Huddersfield, certainly not compared to his team-mates. There were a couple of neat touches and darting runs before another issue reared its head to sum up how impossibly short-sighted the decision to throw money at him was.
The 30-year-old hobbled off with an ankle injury early in the second half, one more addition to an assortment of leg-related problems over the past 18 months. Who’d have thought that would happen after being run into the ground by both Arsenal and Chile?
Every time the television broadcast cut to the hapless Ed Woodward, the ‘brains’ behind this operational mishap, you could sense the blood boiling back in the red half of Manchester.
What hope is there with that man in charge?
Manchester United’s flimsy hopes of Champions League qualification officially ended with a limp 1-1 draw at relegated Huddersfield Town.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men needed victory to hold any hope of edging into the top four. They got off to a welcome start when Scotland midfielder Scott McTominay’s eight-minute drive comically went through Denmark goalkeeper Jonas Lossl.
But the visitors to John Smith’s Stadium soon lost momentum and Belgium Under-21 forward Isaac Mbenza took advantage of some risible defending from Luke Shaw on the hour mark to slot under Spain No1 David de Gea. This low strike came either side of France centre midfielder Paul Pogba hitting the cross bar, with a header and curled shot.
MAN UNITED (4-3-1-2)
David de Gea 6: Nutmegged for the equaliser, but the troubled Spaniard was blameless – for once.
Ashley Young 6: The veteran right-back was a willing runner on the overlap and did uncharacteristically well with his crosses.
Victor Lindelof 6: Was no lingering impact from 2017/18’s horror show at the ground. Went straight down tunnel when substituted.
Phil Jones 5: Didn’t cover himself in glory with his positioning for leveller. Looked cumbersome throughout.
Luke Shaw 4: Positioning was laughable for the counter-attack that did for United.
Scott McTominay 6: You make your own luck and his pot shot somehow crept in for a second Premier League goal.
Nemanja Matic 5: Nothing good, nothing bad. Statuesque Serbia, however, does nothing to improve United’s laughable running statistics.
Paul Pogba 6: Hit the crossbar with a first-half header and second-half shot. Often looked up to see zero movement in front of him.
Juan Mata 5: Spain playmaker led the way with key passes for United. But never looks like making a telling impact.
Marcus Rashford 5: Mixed bag. Snatched at one second-half shot, then threatened from 25 yards. Inconsistency not surprising given youth and injury concerns.
Alexis Sanchez 4: No shots in his 53 minutes on the pitch, prior to coming off with yet another injury. Watching the descent of a once-great player is excruciating.
2012 - Manchester United haven't won their last away league game of the season since the 2011-12 campaign, when they won 1-0 at Sunderland on the final day. Despondent. #HUDMUN pic.twitter.com/RGxivkqjvF— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) May 5, 2019
Ander Herrera 6: Added a bit of energy, as expected.
Tahith Chong 6: Raw, but talented. Messed up some touches, yet forced fine low save from Lossl.
Diogo Dalot N/A: Sight of Portuguese right-back jogging back for one counter-attack should alarm Solskjaer.
Manchester United head into Sunday’s clash against Huddersfield with their Champions League hopes hanging by a thread, but also somehow very much alive.
All four protagonists in the race for the top four – United, Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea – have stuttered down the Premier League home straight. And with United facing two relegated sides in their final two fixtures – the Terriers and Cardiff, who were sent down on Saturday following defeat to Crystal Palace – on paper, at least, they must realise they have a chance.
But they simply have to start finding form in order to get out of their funk, and that issue is how we kick off our talking points.
CHERRIES PICK UP WIN, UNITED PICK HEADS UP
They’ve been saying for weeks that no one wants the last two spots for the Champions League as top-four candidates continue to falter and surprise results keep occurring.
After David de Gea gifted Chelsea an equaliser and both they plus United meandered to a dull 1-1 draw at Old Trafford last week, the Red Devils’ hopes of elite European football next term were rendered bleak.
But Spurs’ slip at Bournemouth on Saturday means United’s faint hopes are somehow still flickering – and now they have to try and fan those flames by hammering Huddersfield to ramp up the heat on the rest of their rivals.
Nothing but a commanding victory will do for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side at the John Smith’s Stadium on Sunday. United are in desperate need of not only a victory but a vibrant performance after a month of poor, lifeless displays.
Whereas with eight games to go Arsenal appeared in the driving seat for the top four with a kind set of fixtures, Unai Emery’s men have faltered, with their struggles on the road continuing in defeats at Wolves and Leicester, as well as a home loss to Crystal Palace.
Stuttering Spurs have suffered four defeats in their last seven games – their nine men losing 1-0 to the Cherries meant they failed to secure Champions League qualification. They also end the season with a tough test against Everton at home.
Chelsea, meanwhile, are also out of sorts, having won just three of their last seven, and they are winless in three games.
United simply must shake off the rust.
DE GEA HANDED A REPRIEVE
Many critics predicted and many United fans had called for David de Gea to be taken out of the firing line following his latest blunder against Chelsea last week.
De Gea’s gaffe, allowing Antonio Rudiger’s long-range strike to escape his grasp which was then seized upon by Marcos Alonso, was the latest in a season of high-profile mistakes the United custodian has made, following errors at the World Cup with Spain.
But Solskjaer resisted calls for a change between the sticks – but the decision was seemingly taken out of his hands when No2 keeper Sergio Romero was ruled out of the Huddersfield trip through injury.
“Of course we trust him, he’s been fantastic this season,” Solskjaer said of De Gea in his pre-match press conference on Friday.
“Towards the end now he’s been in the headlines maybe for the wrong reasons, but, as I’ve said so many times, he has to deal with that.”
Speculation about his future, plus a wrangle over a purported new contract, surely aren’t helping the Spaniard’s fragile mindset, and the 28-year-old stopper needs a decent performance in Yorkshire just as much as his team do.
United’s player of the year for four of the last five seasons had been the best keeper in the world for a number of years prior to this season but has slipped behind Barcelona’s Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Atletico Madrid’s Jan Oblak over the previous 10 months.
He’s in need of a summer break so that his future can finally be sorted out and so he can receive a vital break, both physically and mentally. But, right now, he just needs to switch on and perform at his highest for another 180 minutes.
CAN FRAUD SANCHEZ FIND ANY FORM?
Alexis Sanchez was one of the Premier League’s deadliest finishers and silkiest forwards when he swapped the Emirates Stadium for Old Trafford a little over a year ago.
Sure, his final six months at Arsenal was circumspect. He had definitely lost a step in terms of pace and the miles travelled constantly for Chile, as well as club exertions, looked like they were beginning to take a toll on a set of then 29-year-old legs which have seen more action than most during their career.
But United fans were still salivating at the prospect of a genuine world class player arriving. It seemed a no-brainer of a deal.
A swap for confidence-sapped Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who never lived up to his exalted superstar status from his time in the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund. And while the Armenian has hardly pulled up any trees in north London, Gunners fans will still rightly feel they’ve enjoyed the better side of the deal.
Even in that porous final half season at the Emirates, Sanchez still scored a respectable eight goals in 22 appearances in all competitions. He netted three times in 18 games in alternate United red. This season his woeful return of two in 26 has him headed for the exit door this summer.
Since finding the net with a stylish opener against his former side as United dumped Arsenal out of the FA Cup in January, Sanchez has failed to register a single goal or assist in his ensuing 12 outings.
He hasn’t started a game in two months – the 3-2 win over Southampton at the start of March – but looks likely to be in the first XI as United desperately go in search of three points on Sunday.
It is a disastrous return for any top player, let alone one earning £400,000 a week. He has become a fraud.
They’ll take a hit if they get rid of the South American this summer, but it’s a price United must pay as Solskjaer gets set to stamp his mark on the club in the off-season.
He’s living on borrowed time but can Sanchez belatedly stamp his own class on Old Trafford in the final two games of the season and show everyone he’s far from finished?