United's botched misfits have little hope against Barcelona
Manchester United will stand no chance of beating Barcelona in Spain if they play as they did against West Ham, writes Alexander Netherton.
Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has said that his side will need to go back to the performance that saw them qualify against Paris Saint-Germain, with a penalty scored at the death by Marcus Rashford. They do need to do that, but their careless and feckless performances since that win has highlighted their deficiencies.
Following the remarkable triumph in France, United have won just twice, against world-beaters Watford and West Ham. In neither of those games were they convincing, and they struggled with the energy of both opponents. Losses to Wolves (twice), Arsenal and Barcelona since, have shown that it doesn’t require the excellence of Lionel Messi to get through their defence, it just requires turning up.
That is because of the persistent and baffling presence of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. People might argue that they could become dependable presences, but realistically they only look capable when against under-strength attacks, and if the forward line happen to decide they can be bothered on that particular occasion. Otherwise, both of them can be relied upon to leave their brains in the dressing room, and simply fall on the floor and invite disaster.
Defensive weakness is not limited to the middle. Luke Shaw is only intermittently impressive (and suspended for Tuesday), Antonio Valencia is obsolete, Ashley Young is exhausted - and a winger - and neither Matteo Darmian or Marcos Rojo should still be at the club after their past two years’ worth of performances. Injuries and suspension have forced the latter two to be involved in matchday squads, meaning there is no meaningful competition to force the first-team defenders to up their game. It is perhaps no surprise that David de Gea, though still capable of regular brilliance, is now showing frayed edges after years of strain.
Ahead of them, things are little better. Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic are both injury doubts, but both of them make up the complete midfielder: one of them can run, and the other one can pass. Scott McTominay has shown he is capable of raising his game, but he is too green for observers to have any idea where the foundation lies. Fred has shown the occasional hint that he is worth £10 million in the last few weeks, with precious little indication he comes anywhere close to justifying £50 million.
The hopes will rest on Paul Pogba. He is a player with the skills to be amazing, but far from an amazing player. It is true that if he puts in his best performances, United can win and perhaps even dominate. Going by the past three years, he apparently can rarely be bothered to deliver such a thing. Anthony Martial’s form has only flickered since his new contract, and both Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez fail to justify their wages. Pinning all their hopes on an important goal from either Jesse Lingard or Marcus Rashford is not far-fetched - they’ve both done it before - but it is not a convincing game plan.
Defeat is not certain on Tuesday night, it just seems very likely. The spark that Solskjaer ignited has worn out with alarming speed. The hopes for the summer appear dashed, with no central defender earmarked, suggesting that more mediocrity will be indulged and tolerated in the summer and beyond.
That means that Solskjaer, who is currently saying all the right things about standards and clearing out the deadwood, will again have to transcend his environment to deliver something special. Very few managers are capable of that, and even fewer are capable of doing it with the botched misfits at Solskjaer’s disposal.