United have little hope of winning trophies if they do not address their maddening propensity for starting games slowly, as they did once again on Wednesday night.
Indeed, in terms of ‘Manchester United weakness bingo’, this game ticked all the boxes: they began sluggishly, defended poorly throughout, conceded from a set-piece and struggled to break down a team deploying a low block.
Part of the problem, at least in relation to that last point, was the absence of Edinson Cavani from the starting line-up. The veteran striker has been hailed for the huge impact he has had since arriving in October, particularly in terms of the wisdom he is passing on to the young forwards around him.
However, Cavani’s pupils clearly still have a lot to learn judging by their respective performances against the Blades, and particularly during the first half, as United struggled to break down Chris Wilder’s side.
Anthony Martial, who was operating as the central striker, failed to provide the same kind of focal point up front as Cavani. Furthermore, the Frenchman cannot replicate Cavani’s clever movement, which creates so much space for his colleagues.
It was strange, then, that Solskjaer waited so long before introducing the former Paris Saint-Germain attacker, given Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood were struggling nearly as badly as Martial to make something happen. When it became clear that their runs in behind weren’t working, they had little else to fall back on.
Cavani had only been on the pitch 60 seconds, after finally being introduced in the 67th minute, when he showed exactly how dangerous he can be in the box by making a clever run to the near post to get on the end of a Paul Pogba ball.
At that stage, there was still hope. United have come from behind seven times this season to win games, so there was an understandable air of expectancy that they could do it again.
Anthony Martial Manchester United Sheffield United GFX
United were, after all, one of the league’s in-form teams, and on the longest unbeaten run of any side in Europe. However, while they had 16 shots to the visitors’ five, the home side lacked the pace, power and guile to turn the game around.
Also, while Cavani’s omission from the starting line-up could partly explain the problems up front, there were no obvious explanations for the inexcusably poor defending for Sheffield United’s second goal.
The hosts failed three times to clear, after David de Gea calmly played a clearance into space in his own box, allowing Oliver Burke to secure the visitors’ second win of the season with the help of a deflection.
Even then, there was still time for a classic United comeback. Not this time, though. They wouldn’t have deserved a point either, let alone three.
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Of course, one defeat isn’t enough to start writing off United’s title chances, in the same way that a string of wins wasn’t enough to back them to finish top of the pile. However, no matter what their targets are, they cannot afford more anaemic performances like this.
In a season of unpredictable and surprising results anything is still possible but we will now see what Solskjaer’s side is made of, as this is a true test of character.
Do they really have what it takes to fight for the title? Can they cope with the bitter disappointment of an unexpected defeat? Do they have the resilience of true champions? We’ll find out on Saturday at Arsenal.