What to do with Manchester United this season? An away win that featured the usual first-match concession lifts Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side to sixth place with 23 points, and their game in hand means they could be in second place if they win.
Yet while United barely performed brilliantly from kick-off to final whistle, this was their sixth unbeaten Premier League game, including five victories. Sheffield United entered the contest with a single point and finished the same, and while their visitors stuttered at first, then suffered a late scare, they ended up defeating the last team in the division as any title contender surely must.
The Blades lined up 5-3-2 that had David McGoldrick and Oliver Burke on the attack as Chris Wilder looked to stop a terrible streak of 11 losses in 12 league games and avoid a club-record eight straight losses.
Solskjær’s main play was to prefer Dean Henderson over David de Gea in goal, the first after spending two years on loan at Bramall Lane, and the coach said this was not a reflection of the Spaniard who had played “really well against Manchester City “in a goalless Derby on Saturday.
Henderson soon underperformed on a disastrous start for the visitors. The hosts forced a corner kick through Sander Berge on the right, and after John Fleck dropped it into the crowd in front of Henderson, he fired. Then calamity struck.
When Victor Lindelöf hit a short free kick awarded for offside to Henderson, he carried left possession through the area to Harry Maguire. The captain returned it and the number one took too long: Burke loaded up Henderson’s punt and threw a pass to McGoldrick, who scored his fourth goal of the season.
It was United’s last lousy start to an away game – the sixth straight time in the league that they have conceded first. Again they had to come from behind.
Witnessing Henderson’s charade, Solskjær turned to his bench in dismay, and may have also regretted his inclusion of the 23-year-old. Wilder’s men were in charge. Aaron Wan-Bissaka had a choked pass, Fleck fired wide off Henderson’s right post and United were unable to take control or impose any pace.
Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic were invisible in midfield, and when Marcus Rashford sank deep to pick up and run at United, he was met with a wall of red and white stripes, Wilder’s five-man defense performing as required.
Solskjaer’s men needed a moment of brilliance and when Lindelöf passed over for Rashford, the forward produced a sublime first touch, followed by an emphatic shot past Aaron Ramsdale.
Then Martial seemed sure to break his duck in the league when Bruno Fernandes played him, only for Chris Egan to get hooked. However, the French did not have to wait long to finally score a first league goal. This stemmed from a brilliant no-look Pogba pass that bypassed the Blades defense and found Martial, who finished.
Suddenly United were 2-1 up and Rashford was running towards a pass from Martial and while his left foot shot went straight to Ramsdale, United finished half on the happier side.
Perhaps with a Solskjær flea in the collective ear, they were much brighter at the beginning of the second period. Matic found Fernandes expertly, Mason Greenwood claimed a free throw and then United had a third.
This was a sweet sequence that featured a Pogba pirouette in his own half before the ball passed through Fernandes, fouled Greenwood, back to Fernandes and Martial, whose control of the ball hit him. inadvertently to Rashford and unloaded under Ramsdale 3-1.
Pogba had created two goals in classic Pogba fashion – through elevated skill, only the best have. Eyebrows were raised when he was elected before Donny van de Beek, but his display justified Solskjær’s decision. The Frenchman was leading the game as Fernandes often does with United – demanding the ball and using it destructively while inspiring his teammates.
They were playing inside the Sheffield field, pinging passes as a training ground exercise. Fernandes came close to putting Juan Mata in place of Greenwood, while Martial’s linking game was as encouraging as his goal. But then Lindelöf headed a corner against McGoldrick and this somehow beat the hapless Henderson. The sad race continues for Wilder and his men. United held out, but they remain an enigma.
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