Passing on transfer target, set-pieces and more – everything that can go wrong is going wrong at Manchester United – Samuel Luckhurst

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The defining image of Manchester United’s season came in the 71st minute against Southampton. The team with a set-piece coach and without a set-piece goal all season scored from a set-piece. It was just that six players were offside.

Some supporters sat in the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand parallel with United’s attacking line joked before kick-off Harry Maguire must have been pushing one of the lawnmowers, as the grass-cutting was wonky. They were literally laughing again at the wayward line of the United attackers seconds before Bruno Fernandes whipped the ball into the Southampton area.

Like an obsequious Tory, some United players tried to defend the indefensible, adding to the tragicomedy. Fernandes and Cristiano Ronaldo protested to the referee Stuart Attwell and were more expert at time-wasting than any of the Southampton players. The atrocious Atwell took one minute and 13 seconds to confirm it was offside and, even after that, nattered with Fraser Forster.

Ralf Rangnick eventually ran onto the pitch to retrieve the ball and, in retrospect, should have charged onto the pitch to make an intervention with Fernandes and Ronaldo, if only so the game could restart.

The Southampton coaches ought to have seized on the pause to show their players a screenshot – which went viral so quickly Richard Arnold may mention it on the next investors’ call: “Look how desperate they are.”

How not to organize for a set-piece
How not to organize for a set-piece

“Breaking every rule in the book here United on how to chase a goal!” Gary Neville tweeted. “Don’t give fouls away, don’t give the ball away, don’t force it, don’t lose your discipline and chase the ref etc etc! Probably score now.” They didn’t.

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Little wonder Chris Armas appeared so stunned United registered from a set-piece at Burnley, where Raphael Varane’s goal was chalked off due to Maguire’s dense decoy interference. Varane requested clips of United’s set-piece set-up before he officially joined in August so he could study them in preparation. That was before Eric Ramsey arrived.

United have taken 128 corners in the Premier League this term without converting. The last player to do so was Maguire against Sheffield United in January last year, so long ago United would have returned to top spot had they won. They wilted and lost to the basement club.

Even in that eerie crowdless setting, it was the first red flag of this team’s brittle mentality. United got dizzy when they reached the summit and they have been found out collectively and individually with expectations raised and amplified by the return of supporters.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka, underwhelming last season, has not played in over a month. Maguire, Fernandes and Luke Shaw thrived without the added adrenaline fueled by matchgoers and they are devoid of excuses. All are in their mid or late 20s.

Others have an air of entitlement an interim manager has punctured, only their egos are more inflated than ever. Rangnick demanded a ‘more nasty’ streak from United’s defending when it is certainly present in the dressing room. The backbiting from one player about teammates is so vindictive he might as well be an opponent.

Finish outside the top four and trophyless and this may be recognized as a nadir to trump the David Moyes error. United’s outstanding result of the season was against lowly Leeds, there have been thrashings aplenty, domestic cup eliminations at the first and second hurdles, and an erratic Atletico Madrid are still capable of ending United’s Champions League campaign.

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Come the summer, perhaps the post-Ferguson era will be renamed the post-Mourinho era. There were two trophies, three finals and second place on his watch from him.

Varane and Ronaldo could be playing Europa League football next season.  Or worse, Europa Conference League
Varane and Ronaldo could be playing Europa League football next season. Or worse, Europa Conference League

A dormant January window where the nearest United came to a signing was Martin Dubravka could yet be costly; consider the transformative effect an all-action set-piece specialist of a full-back is having at Newcastle. United earmarked Kieran Trippier as a potential reinforcement midway through last season and went so far the Trippiers were confidently telling friends a deal was ‘done’ in the summer. United did not go far enough.

Pit Scott McTominay against an accomplished midfield axis, be it Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves last month or James Ward-Prowse and Oriol Romeu this month, and he is found out. It was inexcusable not to recruit a midfielder in the short or long-term to address the balance in January.

Whatever the mitigation, United cannot defend the indefensible.



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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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