If ever a Manchester United performance could illustrate everything that is currently wrong with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side, this was it.
Some issues stood out more than others. United’s defensive failings were by far the most shambolic aspect of this 2-1 defeat away to Istanbul Basaksehir and have rightly taken all the headlines.
If you are yet to see a clip of Demba Ba’s free run at goal after every single United player went forward for a 12th-minute corner, then you can locate it on BT Sport’s Twitter feed. As you watch, listen out for a faint mutter of “Jesus” just as Ba picks up possession on the halfway line.
That’s Martin Keown on co-commentary, saying exactly what we’re all thinking under his breath.
“Obviously it’s not a goal you normally concede,” Solskjaer admitted in his post-match press conference. “We’ve not done our duties and roles there. That’s my responsibility. We were going to play a short corner but we forgot our defending duties after we played a couple of short passes.”
The best thing you can say about Ba’s goal from United’s perspective is that it is a mistake and either a one-off or extremely unlikely to ever be repeated. The same cannot be said for the defensive lapses that led to Basaksehir’s second. They were all too familiar.
The easy loss of possession, the sudden vulnerability to being countered, the failure to retreat into a proper defensive shape, the scramble towards the ball-carrier leaving other opponents unmarked.
All the hallmarks of United’s strange inability to defend in transition were there. They are not going away any time soon.
Solskjaer’s defence was the third-best in the Premier League last season and also one of the best across Europe’s top five leagues. If they are all stood in a row behind a midfield dominating possession, all is well. But when they are caught on the hop, it is not an exaggeration to say that it is at times schoolboy stuff.
And yet for all the justified criticism of the defence, the vast majority of the evening saw United trying and failing to break down Basaksehir.
While dissecting Ba’s goal, Solskjaer said that United “know how hard it is to create goals and create chances”. He had a point. Despite chasing for an equaliser, Solskjaer’s players had failed to register a single shot on the Basaksehir goal during the final half hour until connecting with a couple of corners in stoppage time.
Anthony Martial’s goal was the best opportunity that they created all evening. Otherwise, it was set-plays or Bruno Fernandes attempts from range which could be described as ambitious at best, wasteful at worst. The closest United came to an equaliser was Mehmet Topal’s sliced clearance towards his own goal which was cleared off the line by Alexandru Epureanu.
With Ba’s goal coming so early, Basaksehir were ahead for 78 minutes at the Fatih Terim Stadium. The Super Lig champions saw a fraction of the ball yet United only took one shot more than their opponents. This was not just a failure from a defensive standpoint for United, but from an attacking one too.
Is the underlying issue a lack of character and leadership? That was Roy Keane’s suggestion after the defeat to Arsenal on Sunday.
It is an easy criticism to make, one that is difficult to pinpoint or quantify. And yet the picture which captain Harry Maguire painted during Monday’s pre-match press conference, of a dressing room full of players ready to shoulder responsibility and respond to adversity, is brutally undermined by displays like this.
The ultimate responsibility for leadership lies with the manager, however, and when a performance is so comprehensively bad, Solskjaer cannot escape blame.
To his credit, he accepted responsibility for Ba’s goal and the defeat in general, much like he did following the 6-1 against Tottenham last month. There is a risk of an over-reaction too. As poor as this was, United remain top of Group H following his impressive wins over Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig.
With all that being said, Solskjaer’s line-up was questionable. Rotation is perfectly understandable given the demanding schedule but the constant changes in system and formation feel unhelpful.
The diamond which last week was hailed as a silver bullet was ditched. The three-man defence of Paris a fortnight ago has not been seen since. Solskjaer is back to his trusted 4-2-3-1, which was hardly a roaring success in the first place.
For the first time in a while, Solskjaer was asked about his job security in his post-match press conference.
“I decline to comment on such a thing,” he said. “Of course it’s early on. Opinions are out there all the time. You’ve got to stay strong. I’m employed by the club to do a job and I do that to the best of my ability with our staff.”
Those questions will become more frequent, though, unless United can find consistency. Nearly two years on from his caretaker appointment, this is very much Solskjaer’s team now and its long-established problems – building structured attacks, defending in transition and finding the right set-up – are his to solve.
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