Premier League hits and misses: Manchester United’s puzzle lacks a pattern


United’s foundations still built on sand

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Manchester City’s win against Manchester United

Gary Neville had spoken about Manchester United having “better foundations” following the switch to a back three and some more encouraging results against Tottenham and Atalanta. After the 2-0 defeat to Manchester City, those foundations look built on sand.

Even Ole Gunnar Solskjaer seems to accept now that the answers he found in the wake of that miserable 5-0 defeat to Liverpool, will not be a long-term solution for this team.

“The performance against Tottenham was good but it is not what we want to look like,” he said in his post-match press conference. “Unfortunately, we had to try to get a result.”

Solskjaer described the derby display against Manchester City as passive and that is how this counter-attacking game can appear when they are unable to get close to the opposition.

The problem for Manchester United is they cannot play a pressing game – there is little sign that Cristiano Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes are suited to such a tactic.

  • Man Utd 0-2 Man City – Match report and highlights
  • How the teams lined up | Match stats

Nor can they produce the sort of possession game that City delivered at Old Trafford. In fact, so uncomfortable did they appear on the ball that supporters were left urging David de Gea to pump his goal-kicks up the field rather than risk losing the ball yet again.

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So, what now? What is the future for this team if it means returning to an approach they were forced to abandon in adopting this more cautious 3-5-2 in the first place?

Solskjaer spoke of the “need to be more aggressive” afterwards. “You have to come out against Watford like a proper hurt animal and get back to what we can be.”

Three years into the job, working out exactly what that is remains the conundrum.
Adam Bate

Bernardo and Cancelo make the difference

When Pep Guardiola picks his team there is always a surprise. Jack Grealish has been a mainstay since his £100m move in the summer but he made way for this one at Old Trafford. There was even speculation that Kevin De Bruyne’s place might be in doubt.

Bernardo Silva’s presence seems non-negotiable and he showed why with a decisive performance in Manchester City’s 2-0 derby win. He was the one to take the game away from Manchester United, sneaking in at the far post to divert in the second goal.

That was just the highlight. The overall performance was outstanding, setting the tone for his team and providing an irresistible contrast to the home side’s efforts. Silva conceded more fouls than any City player and covered 12.51 kilometres – more than anyone else.

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If he was denied the man of the match award it was down to Joao Cancelo, who revelled in his left-back role, setting up both goals. His performance owed plenty to individual quality but was made possible by Guardiola’s tactical outmanoeuvring of his counterpart.

The choice of Phil Foden over Grealish on the left was important, the left footer staying high and wide, stretching the play and pinning back Aaron Wan-Bissaka. With United fielding no wingers in the first half, it gave Cancelo the freedom of Old Trafford.

Guardiola has world-class options, of course, and there were no doubt numerous ways in which he could have won this game. But one left the stadium feeling that his use of Cancelo had been significant – and that his reliance on Bernardo had been typical.
Adam Bate

Profligate Chelsea only have themselves to blame

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from the 1-1 draw between Chelsea and Burnley

Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with struggling Burnley at Stamford Bridge on Saturday afternoon was definitely a case of two points dropped by Thomas Tuchel’s side, who dominated the contest from start to finish and yet somehow left with only a draw to show for their efforts.

The German later described the Clarets’ point as being “very lucky”, a description even his opposite number Sean Dyche found hard to disagree with after the hosts racked up an incredible 25 shots in the game – their most in a Premier League home match they failed to win, incidentally, since August 2015 against Crystal Palace.

  • Chelsea 1-1 Burnley – Match report and highlights
  • How the teams lined up | Match stats

The Blues also enjoyed a mammoth 79 per cent possession before the break and 68.5 per cent overall, but they only have themselves to blame – and perhaps Burnley No 1 Nick Pope – for not extending their lead at the top of the table after some wasteful finishing.

In some ways, Chelsea can be excused with first-choice forwards Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner still sidelined, and yet Tuchel still had plenty of attacking options from which to choose from, it was just the back-ups had one of those afternoons in front of goal.
Richard Morgan

Selhurst Park is full of hope and excitement under Vieira

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Crystal Palace’s win against Wolves

There have been times over the past three seasons or so that a trip to Selhurst Park has been a bit of a chore. The football under Roy Hodgson was pragmatic and assured Crystal Palace would not fall through the trap door. Selhurst Park is now an exciting place to watch football.

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Patrick Vieira deserves immense credit for stamping his mark all over the club. The fans watching can dream a little bigger now with Vieira at the helm. Their 2-0 victory over a woeful Wolves takes them into the top half.

There is every chance they may stay there, too. The football is easy on the eye and possession based which is seeing their attacking players flourish in the areas where they can hurt the opposition.

Wilfried Zaha came to life in the second half, scoring the all-important opening goal, before Conor Gallagher, full of life in midfield as ever, settled the match with a deflected effort. The fact Palace went to chase the second goal rather than shutting up shop for a 1-0, shows you exactly what the mentality is here now. Attack is the best form of defence for Vieira. Palace are going places.
Lewis Jones

Is this the start of the great escape for Norwich?

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Norwich’s win against Brentford

If only Norwich could face Brentford every week. The Canaries are now unbeaten in their last six meetings, winning four, but as manager Daniel Farke strode over to embrace his away supporters, the German, who was sacked a couple of hours after the match, remained under no illusions of what their hard-fought 2-1 victory in west London must represent.

“Last season, we were winning game after game but the fans weren’t able to celebrate with us so also for them it’s a great celebration,” Farke said. “They’ve had to be very patient. We know that we have to keep going and that it will be a long road.”

  • Brentford 1-2 Norwich – Match report and highlights
  • How the teams lined up | Match stats

Farke spoke of fine margins, and scoring the first goal formed the platform for this unlikely success. Norwich ended a run of 14 Premier League matches without taking the lead in a match, going ahead for the first time since July 2020 against Watford, a game they lost 2-1. This can only be the start.

Having ended a 20-game winless Premier League sequence straddling two seasons to kickstart their latest quest to show they belong at this level, Farke thumped his chest to conduct the celebrations and as he headed down the tunnel at the Brentford Community Stadium, he knows his side are already in survival mode – although they will have to manage it without him.

Norwich’s next three games read Southampton (home), Wolves (home) and Newcastle (away). This spirited victory must act as a springboard to further points in those games under their new boss if momentum is to be maintained.
Ben Grounds

Brentford need Toney tonic to arrest slide

Image: Brentford slumped to a fourth straight loss

Brentford have suffered four consecutive league defeats for the first time since December 2016 under Dean Smith in the Championship, but Thomas Frank is not about to rip up his formula for success.

“Do you mean bad run of form or bad run of results?” he asked a reporter on Saturday following his side’s latest setback at home to Norwich.

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Frank was correct with his assessment that Brentford “destroyed” Norwich in the second half, but their ponderous opening 45 minutes where much of the damage was self-inflicted left too much of a mountain to climb.

The Brentford boss hates losing and will spend the majority of the international break agonising over how he can arrest the slide, with the credit taken from a vibrant opening seven weeks of their stay in the Premier League having been soiled by the quartet of defeats.

“I’m devastated and my body is burning,” Frank said. “I’m very irritated so it’s important I get asked good questions as I just hate losing.

“When I watch the video back on Monday, I know it will be more calming as I feel we are on the right track. It will be impossible if we don’t collect more points if we keep performing as we are. All the xG tables tell me that it will change so we just have to keep the faith and the results will turn around.”

Rico Henry became Brentford’s 10th different scorer in the Premier League this season – only Chelsea (15) and Manchester City (11) have had more in the competition this season – but Frank will focus on getting his talisman back firing.

Ivan Toney has now gone six league games without scoring and only has one Premier League goal so far to his name in his 11 appearances. Understandably given the step up in class, it is his longest barren run without a league goal since playing for Peterborough in April 2019.

Toney rarely looked like ending his drought here, occupied by the excellent 19-year-old Andrew Omobamidele, and Brentford must look to get the best out of him in order to climb the table again.
Ben Grounds

Can Smith hang on over the international break?

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Southampton’s win over Aston Villa

When Aston Villa roared into a 2-0 lead at home to Wolves, all looked rosy for Dean Smith. Yet here Villa are. That capitulation to lose 3-2 against Bruno Lage’s team has been a hard memory to shake for the team, who are now in the midst of a five-game losing run. Defeats to Tottenham, Wolves, Arsenal, West Ham and Southampton do not look good when assessing the case of where Villa are going under Smith.

  • Southampton 1-0 Aston Villa – Match report and highlights
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Against Southampton, it was more of the same in terms of their attacking patterns. Creating chances remains a huge problem for Smith without the influence of Jack Grealish. Anwar El Ghazi was not the answer, putting in an erratic showing, while Leon Bailey understandably is still getting to grips with life in the Premier League. An expected goals figure of 0.7 at St Mary’s perfectly showcased Villa’s problems in attack. There are some big decisions to make over the international break, starting with whether to move forward with this manager.
Lewis Jones

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