It might be early but is Manchester United's title bid over?
Manchester United have 17 games left in the Premier League and are chasing their first title since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Things were looking good but after dropping points against Sheffield United and Arsenal Alex Netherton wonders whether they have slipped up and left themselves too much to do.
Edinson Cavani of Manchester United shows his disappointment at a missed chance during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Manchester United at Emirates Stadium on January 30, 2021 in London, England
Manchester United’s failure to win either of their last two Premier League games has probably cost them the chance of challenging for the title in the second half of the season.
Years ago, a point away at Arsenal was something to be celebrated. Traditionally it was a difficult place to go, but traditionally they’ve not had players like Willian and David Luiz clogging up their squad. Mikel Arteta clearly has something about him as a manager, but with a lack of funds and the increasingly clownish influence of Edu on transfer strategy, it does seem like he made a mistake by returning to Arsenal.
If Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants to make sure that United are something like their former selves, then one of the habits they need to pick up is being able to bully Arsenal again. When Arsenal were on their way down, Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho both enjoyed demonstrating the physical, tactical, and above all else, mental limits of Arsene Wenger's squad.
Arsene Wenger (left) has been praised by Sir Alex Ferguson (right)
Image credit: PA Sport
They were an effete mess, and it was a disgrace to football that Wenger was able to ride years of unearned praise for his principles. Principles, on the pitch, earn you absolutely nothing in football, and should only be embraced when it is advantageous to do so.
Arsenal have not changed that fundamental weakness since Wenger left. The only difference is that the strength of their squad has continued to decline. There are a few promising youngsters, but the atmosphere at their club should be enough to kick any potential out of them, as it did Jack Wilshere a few years ago and is doing to Ainsley Maitland-Niles now.
This game was a chance for United to demonstrate that they had left a similar sense of rot behind, that Solskjaer’s attempts to overhaul the players’ attitude had succeeded. Any club can make a misstep, as United did in their loss to Sheffield United, but champions have the resilience to make sure they don’t compound that error.
When Buyako Saka was left out of the Arsenal squad, it was a chance to rest easy given Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was also missing. The weakest defender in the United backline, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, was afforded a relatively comfortable evening as Arsenal’s left-hand side was depleted.
Solskjaer picked a fairly strong side, and for a change he punished some of his players for poor performances. Anthony Martial was left on the bench after a dreadful effort in the last game, and he offered a little more when he was introduced as an early sub at the Emirates.
Manchester United's Norwegian manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer smiles on the touchline during the English Premier League football match between Arsenal and Manchester United at the Emirates Stadium in London on January 30, 2021.
Image credit: Getty Images
There were positive performances in midfield, from Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba and Fred, but United’s forwards showed a familiar failing.
Under Ferguson, the side would set up for big games with the ambition of scoring the only goal of the game. That could have been the aim here, but those Fergie teams had one or more of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Dimitar Berbatov, strikers who could make a difference when it mattered, almost regardless of how well they were playing at a particular moment.
The forward line of Martial, Marcus Rashford and Edinson Cavani, sometimes with the presence of Mason Greenwood, has enough talent to threaten but they do not have that same mindset. It’s fair to doubt the attitude of Martial, certainly in comparison with Rashford, and neither of them are yet clinical finishers. They are best playing on the wings but they are rarely, not consistently, direct.
Rashford is both young and hardworking enough for that to change, Martial probably has missed his chance to become great. Cavani works dutifully but even in his prime at PSG, he supported better players more often than he led the rest of the team. Given Greenwood’s stagnant displays over the course of the current season, Solskjaer should be worried that he will have to go back into the market this summer to get a senior striker, because he has been unable to coach a significant improvement in front of goal or in attitude.
It might be harsh, and perhaps even foolish, to write off United now given they have come back from adversity as a club in the sixties, then from relegation, then from mediocrity. Under Ferguson they came back late in the game so often as to kickstart conspiracy theories. And now they are showing a similar knack. But with so much wrong with the squad and little indication it will be meaningfully improved at least until they spend yet more money, it is fair to say that slip-ups against Sheffield United, and now Arsenal, are likely to cost them the title to a far more battle-hardened Manchester City side.