It’s a horrible feeling when you’ve hit the ‘snooze’ button too many times and you suddenly sit bolt-upright, knowing you’ve gone too far and you’re going to be late for work. Panic quickly sets in. Everything seems to go wrong and the very act of trying to rush to make up time means even the simplest of tasks take longer than it should. And this was the case for Manchester United against Watford.
Sure enough, United began the game as if they had overslept and still had their trousers around their ankles and toothpaste on their chins.
Simply being a little late shouldn’t affect performance, but it’s easy to see why it might – pre-match preparations are shortened, well-trodden routines curtailed, instructions listened to distractedly as everyone goes about their usual business feeling a little flustered. However professional you are, such things are often simply human nature, for most of us are creatures of habit.
We’ll never know whether yet another ‘bus-gate’ was a deciding factor or just another show of incompetence by a club who have become synonymous with it in recent years. There’s no doubt that United started abysmally, however, going about proceedings with the sluggishness of someone who has just woken from a long sleep in the sun. Passes were going astray from the off, the lack of movement as alarming as it has been on so many other occasions against willing but limited opposition this term.
This United team is such a conundrum. It’s a wonder fans have any hair left- such is the compulsion to tear it out on occasions such as these. How can it be that this same set of players can start matches against Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City with such vibrant intent, launching wave after wave of such furious, clinical precision that leave their opponents breathless and behind? Yet, just a couple of weeks later, finds them floundering against a team at the foot of the Premier League?
For those who have seen the good in what Ole Gunnar Solskjær has been trying to do during this campaign, another terrible capitulation such as this is particularly disheartening. Defending Solskjær is easy after displays such as those against Spurs and City but it all starts to seem rather futile when such performances are followed so quickly by ones like this. Just when you think a corner has been turned, just when you think that confidence will now soar and these players will discover their wings and take flight, they once again produce the kind of unforgivable, unfathomably insipid showing offered up against the likes of Newcastle United and West Ham United earlier in the season.
There was no semblance of a plan and United’s midfield was overrun from almost the first minute. Too often United’s players, when seeing their opponents bearing down on them with aggression and purpose, wear the expression of someone who has awoken to find themselves about to be bludgeoned in their bed. Had no one told them that Watford, under a new manager, may come out fighting? Apparently not and, not for the first time, the moment they realise they’re not involved in the football equivalent of a ballroom dance against players with skills as silky as their own, but a dogfight against players willing to gouge and tear and spit for every ball, they wither like tender plants left out in a hard frost.
Solskjær looked a little lost on Sunday, a little beaten. If it’s this infuriating for fans, no doubt he, too, is at his wit’s end. Then again, too often these players look as if they have received little in the way of coaching from one game to the next. Perhaps it is simply the exhaustion of a thin squad that had to put so much mental and physical energy into their recent exertions. Whatever it is, Solskjær needs to find answers quickly to avoid all the goodwill of recent weeks unravelling like an old Christmas jumper.
Perhaps Paul Pogba will provide one such answer. He certainly made a difference in his short spell on the pitch against Watford, looking a cut above his labouring teammates despite spending so long on the sidelines this season. United have been crying out for a player of his vision and technical ability to add impetus to the team and unpick the tightly locked defensive units they have struggled against so badly.
The journey back to Manchester must have been a sombre affair for United’s players after this appalling showing and it is to be hoped that, during the drive home, they took the time to ponder how dispiriting it must have been for fans who travel with them and, too often, have to witness such hollow performances. Solskjær retains the support of most of these fans, but even he must know that he is testing their patience and needs to get a firmer grip on the wheel.
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