independent– “We need to stop doing that,” said Marcus Rashford, but even he couldn’t help but laugh that they did it again. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer also saw the funny side, remarking the 1-0 lead conceded at half-time to West Ham on Saturday was an improvement on the previous week’s 2-0 at St Mary’s.
For the fifth game this season, Manchester United went behind and emerged victorious. Brighton, Newcastle, Everton, Southampton and West Ham all took leads, most of them deservingly, only to finish empty-handed by the final whistle. The comeback against Southampton, with its 92nd-minute winner, was objectively the most bombastic. However, the ferocity of the West Ham job was a real WWE style flexing of the muscles, complete with the heel-like booing from a hometown crowd followed by empty devastation at the three-count.
Of Manchester United’s 19 points this season, 15 have now been accrued from losing positions. And while that’s good and bad, it’s worth focusing on the good for now because, let’s face it, the world is not lacking for negativity.
Not since Sir Alex Ferguson has a United manager got so much out of his attacking talent. To do that, Solskjaer has had to be decisive in many of the above scenarios above. On Saturday he threw on Bruno Fernandes and Rashford at half-time for last week’s match-winner Edinson Cavani and the £40million Donny van de Beek. Fernandes assisted the equaliser and was heavily involved in the other two goals. The third of which, scored by the Rashford came via a through-ball from another sub, Juan Mata. Even keeping on Paul Pogba, perennially maligned, relentlessly booed and regularly dispossessed – 17 times, and it really did feel like more – was pro-active in its passivity.
It’s also fun, and there is something to be said for that, at least from a fan’s perspective. Football under David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho was stagnant, at times soulless, and while the last two years haven’t seen much progression, there have at least been moments to savour. Results in Paris, at Old Trafford against Manchester City, even the two sandwiching the midweek defeat to Paris Saint-Germain, provided short term highs, but highs nonetheless. Comedowns are tomorrow’s problem.
Of course, comedowns cannot be avoided, though certainly delayed, and United’s looms large as and when it is time. The next six days feature a Champions League tie against RB Leipzig to move into the knock-out stages and the Manchester derby. Two negative results and stomachs and heads will take a turn.
The numbers show just how unsustainable it is to flirt so brazenly with defeat. United have benefited from the under-efficiency of their opponents (West Ham should have scored three) by being over-efficient themselves (Pogba’s stunning 25-yard strike to draw level), along with a bit of luck (the ball had gone out of play prior to Pogba’s strike). For better context, their expected goals and expected concessions have them 10th in an alternate, statistically sanitised universe, instead of fifth and five points off the top with a game in hand in the real, imperfect world.
Granted, it’s a bit like saying you should have been run over this morning because you didn’t look both ways. But historically most teams eventually revert to their mean, and that bus takes the same route every day.
There’s also an inexorable toll to all this. Success and failure aren’t the natural bedfellows life coaches will have you believe. A boxer with a strong chin does not want to be punched in the face. There is no thrill in dipping into your overdraft before payday. And no side is going to take real pride in an attack constantly bailing out a broader dysfunctional system.
Each comeback requires players to dig deep and go to the well, emotionally and physically. That well runs dry over a season, and in a season more demanding than most, it may run dry sooner, especially with the festive slog on the horizon. Consider the 6-1 thrashing to Tottenham Hotspur and last week’s 3-1 loss to PSG as notices served for this.
And while it is more truism than fallacy that “this is what Manchester United does” – no team has won more than their 341 points from losing positions in Premier League history – it’s worth remembering coming-from-behind is never Plan A. Of the six seasons in which United won more than 15 points by coming from behind – 2001/2002 (16 out of 77), 1998/99 (17/79), 1992/93 (18/84), 2002/03 (23/83), 1999/2000 (24/91) and 2012/13 (29/89) – the top five were title-winning ones. A “break glass” measure for otherwise shatter-proof sides.
Relying on such heroics also means it’s hard to gauge whether to take the psychology of this collection of players at face value. The backs-against-the-wall narrative helps create the mirage of “team spirit”. Of never giving up. Always believing when others don’t. When, actually, such moments are more down to the wills of individuals.
When you can call on one of the sharpest forwards in England and a £72million world-class No.10, there’s enough professional pride to power a city, let alone find kinks in a back three of Aaron Cresswell, Angelo Ogbonna and Fabian Balbuena.
But it is important not to dismiss these comebacks entirely. Because they do speak better of Solskjaer than they do of the players. The Norwegian has his flaws, but we can probably rule out telling them to “go out there and tank” before kick-off. The inability to dictate matters on their own terms is indicative of a group more comfortable when the opposition states a case that they must counter, in every sense.
Fans of the England Test side under Joe Root can identify with this. A team who needs top-order collapses, first innings deficits and the odd outrageous chase to narrow their focus. Like Manchester United, only when their problems are laid bare can they go about solving them. And like United, their successful moments – sporadic but always entertaining – rested on the shoulders of the usual few. For Bruno Fernandes, see Ben Stokes.
Rashford observed as much from the bench during the first half at the London Stadium: “Sometimes it is not about what the manager says but what we can see on the pitch. We didn’t get around them enough. Nothing threatening to the backline. The team knew what we had to do.”
It makes Tuesday night’s clash in Leipzig something of a problem. United hold top spot knowing a draw is plenty for the knock-out stages but aware their most natural means of achieving a positive result is to bring defeat into play.
Julian Nagelsmann’s charges went toe-to-toe with Bayern Munich on Saturday, with the Bundesliga leaders and European Cup holders needing Thomas Muller to secure them a late 3-3 draw. It was a result to further suggest the 5-0 loss at Old Trafford in October was out of character, and that they are more than willing to stand there and slug it out with the best of them.
If ever there was a time for Manchester United to find a more sensible solution, here it is. And yet, there’s a logic in not trying to do anything different and just embracing the worst if it brings out the better. Besides, doing otherwise is seemingly beyond them.